A Twisted Sense of Duty and Love

by Barbara Ehrenreich and Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks

The Progressive magazine, November 2001


The other day, a l friend told us that what shook her up the most after September 11 was the knowledge that many of the terrorists had lived peaceably among Americans for several years before their attacks, sending their children to our public schools, shopping at the supermarket, ordering pizza, waving a friendly good morning to their neighbors. "What chills me," she said, "is the thought that they hate us so much that not even all those daily interactions with Americans could humanize us for them." That's become the prevailing explanation of the terrorist attacks on September 11: We are up against an almost incomprehensible form of "hate" or "evil."

But although "hate" and "evil" are powerfully evocative words, they don't really tell us much. Indeed, we often haul them out precisely as a way to avoid grappling with more nuanced and troubling explanations for the horrific. On September 11, nineteen men knowingly went to their deaths in order to kill Americans, stymieing experts in terrorist profiling. These men were not desperate or bereft of hope: They had families, foreign language skills, opportunities. They were not unsophisticated, ignorant, or backward, "brainwashed" by simplistic promises of sloe-eyed virgins in the paradise to come; they were highly educated, cosmopolitan, people who lived easily among foreigners, both in the U.S. and in Germany. Was cruelty all they knew? No: Those who met them say they seemed like ordinary people, studying, laughing, picking their children up at school.

Did they hate us in some particularly relentless, unreasoning way? Perhaps, but what we need to acknowledge is that the September 11 terrorists may also have been motivated by their own understanding of duty, honor, and sacrifice-the very same values that have motivated our own soldiers in wars we consider just and necessary. Perhaps they were motivated even by their own terrible, fiery, brand of love, just as conventional warriors have, throughout history, been sustained by love of country and comrades-to the point of both dying and killing for them.

We shrink from the idea that the terrorists could have been motivated by the same impulses that drive soldiers in respectable wars. But imagine growing up, even in a middle-class household, surrounded by suffering, hopelessness, poverty, and pain, in the ruins of Kabul, in the Gaza Strip, in Algeria's ransacked towns, or the bleak streets of Baghdad; imagine being brought up to believe that the suffering you see around you is caused by the hypocrisy, greed, obtuseness, and injustice of the arrogant and licentious American superpower.

For millions of people in the Third World (and, increasingly, in Europe, as well), it may seem that nothing can stop America from taking far more than its fair share of the world's wealth, or from trampling those with less power. America, after all, uses the lion's share of the world's nonrenewable energy resources; we produce disproportionate quantities of dangerous and non-biodegradable waste; we send air strikes against any nation that angers us without being willing to risk the loss of our own troops; we selectively decry human rights abuses in countries we dislike but show little willingness to criticize allies such as Israel, much less turn the mirror upon ourselves; our dominance in the U.N. and other international forums imposes what many see as unfair trade balances and unduly harsh sanctions on nations such as Iraq-sanctions that have a devastating effect on civilians. Striking out to teach America a lesson might then, for some in the Middle East and elsewhere, come to seem like a necessary action, arising out of duty, compassion, and, ultimately, love.

If this seems paradoxical, we should remember that, although laws and moral precepts prohibiting attacks on civilians are as old as humanity itself, history and legend have repeatedly glamorized and praised the slaughter of innocents. While few legal, religious, or philosophical traditions are willing to absolve slaughter that is motivated solely by sadism, many are willing to tolerate "necessary" slaughter, however brutal-and definitions of "necessary" are usually disturbingly vague.

In Book I of Samuel, for example, God orders Saul to punish the Amalekites for their past actions against Israel: " 'Go and smite [them], and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.' " (Indeed, when Saul slaughters all the people but spares the king and most of the livestock, God is so angered at Saul's failure to follow through on the letter of his command that he rejects him as king of Israel.) The Romans put whole populations to the sword when "necessary" to take revenge for "treachery" against Rome. The Crusaders raped and pillaged as they fought their most Christian of wars, leaving Jerusalem, at one point, knee-deep in blood. Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth warns his enemies that if they do not surrender, he will license his men to sack the city:

. . . in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill shrieking daughters,

Your fathers taken by the silver beards

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes....

During the Civil War, Sherman justified the burning of crops and the bombardment of Southern cities by saying, "We are not only fighting hostile armies but a hostile people" who must be made "to feel the hard hand of war." And the fire-bombing of Dresden and other German cities by Allied forces killed several hundred thousand civilians. In Hiroshima, nearly 100,000 people-most of them civilians-died in a single hour after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Three days later, in Nagasaki, at least another 40,000 died when the United States dropped the second atomic bomb (only 250 of the dead were in the Japanese military).

Most of the men who fought these battles were not sadists. They did what they saw as their duty, and they did it as much out of love of city or religion or nation as out of hatred of the enemy. Many of them willingly gave their lives in the process.

To say that the September terrorists may have been motivated by the kinds of feelings we respect in conventional warriors is not to equate terrorism and war. In war, the potential victims have been formally warned that they are at risk. A state of war is known to exist, the warring parties have identified themselves, and although the date and nature of any particular attack is not known in advance by the victims, all are at least on notice of the existence of the threat.

The September terrorists didn't bother with any of these niceties. What is uniquely chilling about the attacks is precisely the absence of authorship: The attacks had no stated purpose, no one has accepted responsibility, and it is impossible to know what might prevent further acts of violence. Even for terrorists, this degree of indifference to public opinion is rare: Most of the time, even terrorists at least declare themselves, make specific threats, and issue concrete demands that, if met, would at least theoretically end the terror. Mohammed Atta and his confederates evidently didn't care what lessons we drew from their actions.

Still, the possibility that they acted not out of hatred but out of a twisted sense of duty and love should make us pause before trying to decide how the United States should respond. If the attacks were motivated by a lofty sense of duty, then Bush's retaliatory strikes that are killing civilians in Afghanistan or elsewhere may merely harden the resolve of other terrorist "patriots" to come. We may unwittingly foster a new generation of would-be martyrs who grimly slaughter innocents in the belief that doing so is an act of sacrifice and love.

Dismissing terrorism as a product of hate and evil is a luxury we cannot afford. After all, if war is what we are getting into, the first rule of war is never to underestimate the enemy.


Rosa Ehrenreich Brooks is an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law, a former Senior Adviser at the State Department's Human Rights Bureau, and a consultant for the Open Society Institute. Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (Metropolitan Books, 2001).

September 11th, 2001 - New York City

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