Q&A: Terrorism's ethical components

Dr. Rushworth M. Kidder is Founder and President of the Institute for Global Ethics . A noted speaker and former senior columnist for The Christian Science Monitor, Kidder is most recently the author "How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living" .

Rushworth Kidder was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor's online news producer, Josh Burek.

csmonitor.com: President Bush told the nation last night that the United States "will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." What ethical boundaries must US leaders consider before committing to a response?

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Kidder: Well, I think we need to put this into the broader context of where the terrorist activity comes from. Bear in mind that terrorism is always perpetrated by a small group of people.

They're supported by a slightly larger, but still very thin layer of people who are the ones who harbor and give them safe houses, give them money and all of that. Below that, there's a group of people who generally in some vague way, think that this is an OK idea – even that's not a particularly large bunch. Because below that, then, you get the typical factions in any kind of a group; those people who would generally be opposed to the United States but wouldn't want to go the level of that kind of appalling violence and those who are on the other side, defending the United States. So we're not talking about a large group of folks up here who are the actual perpetrators and the ones who are sustaining and supporting it.

And I think there's an interesting connection. Would you make a distinction – if you were fighting a war – between the soldiers on the front line, and the logistical support behind the lines that provides the ammunition, the movement, the food, and all that stuff? You typically don't.

They typically all seem to be soldiers and you go after them; you're trying to get at the enemy, wherever it happens to be. To say that all we're trying to do is to get at the perpetrators of the thing, is a bit like saying all we want to do are capture the guys who are dealing drugs on the street corner; we're not going after the kingpins; we're not going after the folks in the back room who make it all possible. And, we don't typically do that. We typically say: "We're going after the whole business" – bearing in mind that the whole business is not a big huge number of people.

csmonitor.com: What does history tell us about the best methods of combating terrorism? Are there lessons the United States should learn from the current Mideast conflict?

Kidder: Oh yes. All sorts of things. And the lesson in all of this, if you talk to the folks who study these things, and make it their business to think about it, terrorism is principally a message system. It's a way for people who are typically not being heard to get attention in international, diplomatic, and political circles.

An individual I've talked with about this has an interesting analogy about terrorism. He said, "In some ways, this is like the five-year old kid, tugging at the skirt of his mother, who's deeply engaged in conversation with some other adult and not paying attention, and tugging and tugging and finally spilling milk and finally creating – in a sense, right there at the mother's feet – a little terrorist scene that has to be paid attention to.

Now, in a sense, what you're doing here, is ratcheting up the stakes. If you're not listening with the small terrorist act, the act gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until finally there is some attention paid.

Now, the danger here, is that the attention we'll try to pay is to respond in kind. Respond the way they did, with a similar kind of violence and all that sort of thing. And that – as I think we've learned in the very recent experience in the Middle East – simply doesn't work. That's revenge building upon revenge and it simply escalates the whole issue.

csmonitor.com: So how does the US deal with the cause and not the symptom?

Kidder: We do this in a very long-term way. Think of it this way. This being a message system, it attacks the symbols of that message. So you pick out a symbol that has to do with America's international economic strength.

Fortunately, from their point of view, there was not only one tower, there were two. That means you could run a plane into first tower, which nobody could've seen, the television cameras weren't there, and once that tower is burning, and all the television cameras are on it, then you wait until you're sure it's all on national television live, and then you run the plane into the second tower.

See what I mean? You're getting people's attention absolutely riveted, because they've seen it in real time. You're attacking not only the symbol of the nation's economic dominance around the world, but you're also attacking, of course, the military center in Washington.

Now, what I find disheartening in all of this, is that we've allowed ourselves as a nation, to let the most important symbols of who we are be the symbols of our economic and military power. Surely, this country stands for more than that. Surely, there is a sense of humanity, a sense of grace, a sense of caring for those less privileged, a sense of human rights.

All these kinds of things are powerful symbols, but we've got to work harder at making those be the things that, when people think about America, they think about those things. In that sense, the terrorists have a point. We haven't made those kinds of symbols the things that stand out in the minds of those overseas; it's something else.

csmonitor.com: Do terrorists work from a different set of ethical criteria? Are they insane, are they operating from a mind set that totally justifies their acts, are they aware of the evil of their own acts?

Kidder: One of the things we've discovered from the work that we do at the Institute for Global Ethics is that there really is a core of shared moral values that you find anywhere. You find people all around the world talking about the need for honesty and respect and responsibility and fairness and compassion. And those really are the five big things that we find again and again.

Oddly enough, it doesn't work to condemn the terrorists, condemn the Nazis, condemn the Mafia as people who have no values whatsoever. Within their context, they have a very well-developed sense of what they think responsibility is, what truth is, what compassion. And, to their own members, and within their own families, they will extend those things very powerfully. The problem is that the boundary within which they put those into practice is so small, so narrow, it won't extend beyond the brotherhood of this particular terrorist cell, for instance. And that allows them to treat other people as simply objects – they're beyond moral concern.

One of the great achievements of Western culture and one of the great achievements of America, is that we keep trying to push the boundary outward. 150 years ago, it didn't include African-Americans. 100 years ago, it didn't include women. We keep pushing that boundary outward. Our moral concern is dedicated to everybody who comes into our frame of consciousness. That's a very different thing from the terrorist mindset which is an extremely narrow one. Those who study terrorism point out that there's an interesting psychological – psychometric, as it were – parallels between the mind of a terrorist and the mind of a teenager.

Now, this isn't meant to condemn teenagers in any way. But it's meant to suggest that, as people mature, they move away from a sense of the world being made up of black and white; everything's either violently good, or violently bad, and there's no nuance to it. They move away from this notion of their own invincibility. In that sense, what you're dealing with in terrorism is something like a case of arrested development; an unwillingness to move into an understanding of the nuance, the gray areas, the moral difficulties; figuring out what constitutes ethics in a complex world.

The terrorist will have none of that. The terrorist simply says, "I'm right, you're wrong, this is the way it has to happen, and we're going to do it." In fact there's so much lack of concern for human life, that they end up being willing to take their own lives. That's not a mentality, necessarily, that you reason with.

And that brings up a fundamental question: If you're going to deal with this, you're not dealing with the terrorist themselves. What we need to create is a circumstance whereby those who generally support the terrorists begin to withdraw their support. Where they begin to say, "Yeah, the United States is making progress, the rest of the world is making progress, there's some signs for hope. We think it's kind of silly that you folks are out there trying to practice terrorism."

That is a broad diplomatic process; that's not a question of sending in some cruise missiles or sending in some people. And the largest moral hazard of all, would be to go on as we are, educating the next generation of Americans with as much limited global understanding as we're currently educating them.

We're in a peculiar situation of being the nation that is without question the global leader in all sorts of ways, and that global leadership is supported by a citizenry, which is probably per capita, more ignorant of the affairs that go on in other countries than are the citizens of any other country in the world.

We don't speak languages, we don't travel abroad. I'm talking about the broad mass of the American public. There is no market in this country for international news. We just haven't learned to care. We don't understand. We haven't been taught what the rest of this world is about.

The real puzzle is how can you work with people who have all these claims and troubles and disturbing and violent concerns around the world unless you start by having some understanding of where they come from so you can get dialogue going and you can listen to the message before the message turns into violence.

csmonitor.com: What preventive measures could the US take to guard against future terrorist attacks? To what extent could and should the US follow the Israeli lead in preemptively assassinating suspected terrorists?

Kidder: I don't think you do that at all. There's a quotation that's fascinating: "If, in order to defeat the beast, you yourself become bestial, then the beast has won." If we move down the road of assassination, we've become the terrorist, and that's precisely what they want. They want to back us into that corner, because then it's easy to lash out at them. Then they build more and more support, not less and less. We cannot fight terrorism with its own weapons.

We are a democracy. We care about human rights. We regard the processes of justice. We are not a vigilante organization. We've got to do this in the right and legitimate way. I'm convinced the way you do this is not so much through weaponry and violence as through intelligence gathering and insight. If there's one flaw, it's that we've allowed ourselves as a nation to be talked into the notion that somehow the CIA, the NSC, the various intelligence-gathering organizations, are not important.

The best way to combat terrorism is to not have it happen at all. The best outcome for Tuesday would've been for somebody to have understood that it was going to happen and prevented it. Now, we can get to that point, but it's a long, slow process of re-education of the public, and that's where we've got go in all of this.

Clearly, there will have to be, in the short term, justice in the sense of finding out the immediate perpetrators and bringing them to justice. I have no objection to that. But you don't do it ... from assassination. You do it through the rule of law.

 You can read Rushworth Kidder's biography at http://www.globalethics.org/seminars/presenters.html .

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