September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America; February 13, 2002

What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America


At times it becomes necessary for a nation to defend itself through force of arms. Because war is a grave matter, involving the sacrifice and taking of precious human life, conscience demands that those who would wage the war state clearly the moral reasoning behind their actions, in order to make plain to one another, and to the world community, the principles they are defending.

We affirm five fundamental truths that pertain to all people without distinction:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

The basic subject of society is the human person, and the legitimate role of government is to protect and help to foster the conditions for human flourishing.

Human beings naturally desire to seek the truth about life's purpose and ultimate ends.

Freedom of conscience and religious freedom are inviolable rights of the human person.

Killing in the name of God is contrary to faith in God and is the greatest betrayal of the universality of religious faith.

We fight to defend ourselves and to defend these universal principles.

What are American Values?

Since September 11, millions of Americans have asked themselves and one another, why? Why are we the targets of these hateful attacks? Why do those who would kill us, want to kill us?

We recognize that at times our nation has acted with arrogance and ignorance toward other societies. At times our nation has pursued misguided and unjust policies. Too often we as a nation have failed to live up to our ideals. We cannot urge other societies to abide by moral principles without simultaneously admitting our own society's failure at times to abide by those same principles. We are united in our conviction -- and are confident that all people of good will in the world will agree -- that no appeal to the merits or demerits of specific foreign policies can ever justify, or even purport to make sense of, the mass slaughter of innocent persons.

Moreover, in a democracy such as ours, in which government derives its power from the consent of the governed, policy stems at least partly from culture, from the values and priorities of the society as a whole. Though we do not claim to possess full knowledge of the motivations of our attackers and their sympathizers, what we do know suggests that their grievances extend far beyond any one policy, or set of policies. After all, the killers of September 11 issued no particular demands; in this sense, at least, the killing was done for its own sake. The leader of Al Qaeda described the "blessed strikes" of September 11 as blows against America, "the head of world infidelity." Clearly, then, our attackers despise not just our government, but our overall society, our entire way of living. Fundamentally, their grievance concerns not only what our leaders do, but also who we are.

SO WHO ARE WE? What do we value? For many people, including many Americans and a number of signatories to this letter, some values sometimes seen in America are unattractive and harmful. Consumerism as a way of life. The notion of freedom as no rules. The notion of the individual as self-made and utterly sovereign, owing little to others or to society. The weakening of marriage and family life. Plus an enormous entertainment and communications apparatus that relentlessly glorifies such ideas and beams them, whether they are welcome or not, into nearly every corner of the globe.

One major task facing us as Americans, important prior to September 11, is facing honestly these unattractive aspects of our society and doing all we can to change them for the better. We pledge ourselves to this effort.

At the same time, other American values -- what we view as our founding ideals, and those that most define our way of life -- are quite different from these, and they are much more attractive, not only to Americans, but to people everywhere in the world. Let us briefly mention four of them.

The first is the conviction that all persons possess innate human dignity as a birthright, and that consequently each person must always be treated as an end rather than used as a means. The founders of the United States, drawing upon the natural law tradition as well as upon the fundamental religious claim that all persons are created in the image of God, affirmed as "self-evident" the idea that all persons possess equal dignity. The clearest political expression of a belief in transcendent human dignity is democracy. In the United States in recent generations, among the clearest cultural expressions of this idea has been the affirmation of the equal dignity of men and women, and of all persons regardless of race or color.

Second, and following closely from the first, is the conviction that universal moral truths (what our nation's founders called "laws of Nature and of Nature's God") exist and are accessible to all people. Some of the most eloquent expressions of our reliance upon these truths are found in our Declaration of Independence, George Washington's Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

The third is the conviction that, because our individual and collective access to truth is imperfect, most disagreements about values call for civility, openness to other views, and reasonable argument in pursuit of truth.

The fourth is freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. These intrinsically connected freedoms are widely recognized, in our own country and elsewhere, as a reflection of basic human dignity and as a precondition for other individual freedoms.

To us, what is most striking about these values is that they apply to all persons without distinction, and cannot be used to exclude anyone from recognition and respect based on the particularities of race, language, memory, or religion. That's why anyone, in principle, can become an American. And in fact, anyone does. People from everywhere in the world come to our country with what a statue in New York's harbor calls a yearning to breathe free, and soon enough, they are Americans. Historically, no other nation has forged its core identity -- its constitution and other founding documents, as well as its basic self-understanding -- so directly and explicitly on the basis of universal human values. To us, no other fact about this country is more important.

Some people assert that these values are not universal at all, but instead derive particularly from western, largely Christian civilization. They argue that to conceive of these values as universal is to deny the distinctiveness of other cultures. We disagree. We recognize our own civilization's achievements, but we believe that all people are created equal. We believe in the universal possibility and desirability of human freedom. We believe that certain basic moral truths are recognizable everywhere in the world. We agree with the international group of distinguished philosophers who in the late 1940s helped to shape the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and who concluded that a few fundamental moral ideas are so widespread that they "may be viewed as implicit in man's nature as a member of society." In hope, and on the evidence, we agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, not just for the few, or the lucky, but for all people.

Looking at our own society, we acknowledge again the all too frequent gaps between our ideals and our conduct. But as Americans in a time of war and global crisis, we are also suggesting that the best of what we too casually call "American values" do not belong only to America, but are in fact the shared inheritance of humankind, and therefore a possible basis of hope for a world community based on peace and justice.

What about God?

Since September 11, millions of Americans have asked themselves and one another, what about God? Crises of this magnitude force us to think anew about first principles. When we contemplate the horror of what has occurred, and the danger of what is likely to come, many of us ask: Is religious faith part of the solution or part of the problem?

The signatories to this letter come from diverse religious and moral traditions, including secular traditions. We are united in our belief that invoking God's authority to kill or maim human beings is immoral and is contrary to faith in God. Many of us believe that we are under God's judgment. None of us believe that God ever instructs some of us to kill or conquer others of us. Indeed, such an attitude, whether it is called "holy war" or "crusade," not only violates basic principles of justice, but is in fact a negation of religious faith, since it turns God into an idol to be used for man's own purposes. Our own nation was once engaged in a great civil war, in which each side presumed God's aid against the other. In his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, the tenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, put it simply: "The Almighty has his own purposes."

Those who attacked us on September 11 openly proclaim that they are engaged in holy war. Many who support or sympathize with the attackers also invoke God's name and seem to embrace the rationale of holy war. But to recognize the disaster of this way of thinking, we as Americans need only to remember our own, and western, history. Christian religious wars and Christian sectarian violence tore apart Europe for the better part of a century. In the United States, we are no strangers to those who would murder at least in part in the name of their religious faith. When it comes to this particular evil, no civilization is spotless and no religious tradition is spotless.

The human person has a basic drive to question in order to know. Evaluating, choosing, and having reasons for what we value and love are characteristically human activities. Part of this intrinsic desire to know concerns why we are born and what will happen when we die, which leads us to seek the truth about ultimate ends, including, for many people, the question of God. Some of the signatories to this letter believe that human beings are by nature "religious" in the sense that everyone, including those who do not believe in God and do not participate in organized religion, makes choices about what is important and reflects on ultimate values. All of the signatories to this letter recognize that, across the world, religious faith and religious institutions are important bases of civil society, often producing results for society that are beneficial and healing, at times producing results that are divisive and violent.

So how can governments and societal leaders best respond to these fundamental human and social realities? One response is to outlaw or repress religion. Another possible response is to embrace an ideological secularism: a strong societal skepticism or hostility regarding religion, based on the premise that religion itself, and especially any public expression of religious conviction, is inherently problematic. A third possible response is to embrace theocracy: the belief that one religion, presumably the one true religion, should be effectively mandatory for all members of society and therefore should receive complete or significant state sponsorship and support.

We disagree with each of these responses. Legal repression radically violates civil and religious freedom and is incompatible with democratic civil society. Although ideological secularism may have increased in our society in recent generations, we disagree with it because it would deny the public legitimacy of an important part of civil society as well as seek to suppress or deny the existence of what is at least arguably an important dimension of personhood itself. Although theocracy has been present in western (though not U.S.) history, we disagree with it for both social and theological reasons. Socially, governmental establishment of a particular religion can conflict with the principle of religious freedom, a fundamental human right. In addition, government control of religion can cause or exacerbate religious conflicts and, perhaps even more importantly, can threaten the vitality and authenticity of religious institutions. Theologically, even for those who are firmly convinced of the truth of their faith, the coercion of others in matters of religious conscience is ultimately a violation of religion itself, since it robs those other persons of the right to respond freely and in dignity to the Creator's invitation.

At its best, the United States seeks to be a society in which faith and freedom can go together, each elevating the other. We have a secular state -- our government officials are not simultaneously religious officials -- but we are by far the western world's most religious society. We are a nation that deeply respects religious freedom and diversity, including the rights of nonbelievers, but one whose citizens recite a Pledge of Allegiance to "one nation, under God," and one that proclaims in many of its courtrooms and inscribes on each of its coins the motto, "In God We Trust." Politically, our separation of church and state seeks to keep politics within its proper sphere, in part by limiting the state's power to control religion, and in part by causing government itself to draw legitimacy from, and operate under, a larger moral canopy that is not of its own making. Spiritually, our separation of church and state permits religion to be religion, by detaching it from the coercive power of government. In short, we seek to separate church and state for the protection and proper vitality of both.

For Americans of religious faith, the challenge of embracing religious truth and religious freedom has often been difficult. The matter, moreover, is never settled. Ours is a social and constitutional arrangement that almost by definition requires constant deliberation, debate, adjustment, and compromise. It is also helped by, and helps to produce, a certain character or temperament, such that religious believers who strongly embrace the truth of their faith also, not as a compromise with that truth but as an aspect of it, respect those who take a different path.

What will help to reduce religiously based mistrust, hatred, and violence in the 21st century? There are many important answers to this question, of course, but here, we hope, is one: Deepening and renewing our appreciation of religion by recognizing religious freedom as a fundamental right of all people in every nation.

A Just War? We recognize that all war is terrible, representative finally of human political failure. We also know that the line separating good and evil does not run between one society and another, much less between one religion and another; ultimately, that line runs through the middle of every human heart. Finally, those of us -- Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others -- who are people of faith recognize our responsibility, stated in our holy scriptures, to love mercy and to do all in our power to prevent war and live in peace.

Yet reason and careful moral reflection also teach us that there are times when the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it. There are times when waging war is not only morally permitted, but morally necessary, as a response to calamitous acts of violence, hatred, and injustice. This is one of those times.

The idea of a "just war" is broadly based, with roots in many of the world's diverse religious and secular moral traditions. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings, for example, all contain serious reflections on the definition of a just war. To be sure, some people, often in the name of realism, insist that war is essentially a realm of self-interest and necessity, making most attempts at moral analysis irrelevant. We disagree. Moral inarticulacy in the face of war is itself a moral stance -- one that rejects the possibility of reason, accepts normlessness in international affairs, and capitulates to cynicism. To seek to apply objective moral reasoning to war is to defend the possibility of civil society and a world community based on justice.

The principles of just war teach us that wars of aggression and aggrandizement are never acceptable. Wars may not legitimately be fought for national glory, to avenge past wrongs, for territorial gain, or for any other non-defensive purpose.

The primary moral justification for war is to protect the innocent from certain harm. Augustine, whose early 5th century book, The City of God, is a seminal contribution to just war thinking, argues (echoing Socrates) that it is better for the Christian as an individual to suffer harm rather than to commit it. But is the morally responsible person also required, or even permitted, to make for other innocent persons a commitment to non-self-defense? For Augustine, and for the broader just war tradition, the answer is no. If one has compelling evidence that innocent people who are in no position to protect themselves will be grievously harmed unless coercive force is used to stop an aggressor, then the moral principle of love of neighbor calls us to the use of force.

Wars may not legitimately be fought against dangers that are small, questionable, or of uncertain consequence, or against dangers that might plausibly be mitigated solely through negotiation, appeals to reason, persuasion from third parties, or other non-violent means. But if the danger to innocent life is real and certain, and especially if the aggressor is motivated by implacable hostility -- if the end he seeks is not your willingness to negotiate or comply, but rather your destruction -- then a resort to proportionate force is morally justified.

A just war can only be fought by a legitimate authority with responsibility for public order. Violence that is free-lance, opportunistic, or individualistic is never morally acceptable.

A just war can only be waged against persons who are combatants. Just war authorities from across history and around the world -- whether they be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, from other faith traditions, or secular -- consistently teach us that noncombatants are immune from deliberate attack. Thus, killing civilians for revenge, or even as a means of deterring aggression from people who sympathize with them, is morally wrong. Although in some circumstances, and within strict limits, it can be morally justifiable to undertake military actions that may result in the unintended but foreseeable death or injury of some noncombatants, it is not morally acceptable to make the killing of noncombatants the operational objective of a military action.

These and other just war principles teach us that, whenever human beings contemplate or wage war, it is both possible and necessary to affirm the sanctity of human life and embrace the principle of equal human dignity. These principles strive to preserve and reflect, even in the tragic activity of war, the fundamental moral truth that "others" -- those who are strangers to us, those who differ from us in race or language, those whose religions we may believe to be untrue -- have the same right to life that we do, and the same human dignity and human rights that we do.

On September 11, 2001, a group of individuals deliberately attacked the United States, using highjacked airplanes as weapons with which to kill in less than two hours over 3,000 of our citizens in New York City, southwestern Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. Overwhelmingly, those who died on September 11 were civilians, not combatants, and were not known at all, except as Americans, by those who killed them. Those who died on the morning of September 11 were killed unlawfully, wantonly, and with premeditated malice -- a kind of killing that, in the name of precision, can only be described as murder. Those murdered included people from all races, many ethnicities, most major religions. They included dishwashers and corporate executives.

The individuals who committed these acts of war did not act alone, or without support, or for unknown reasons. They were members of an international Islamicist network, active in as many as 40 countries, now known to the world as Al Qaeda. This group, in turn, constitutes but one arm of a larger radical Islamicist movement, growing for decades and in some instances tolerated and even supported by governments, that openly professes its desire and increasingly demonstrates its ability to use murder to advance its objectives.

We use the terms "Islam" and "Islamic" to refer to one of the world's great religions, with about 1.2 billion adherents, including several million U.S. citizens, some of whom were murdered on September 11. It ought to go without saying -- but we say it here once, clearly -- that the great majority of the world's Muslims, guided in large measure by the teachings of the Qur'an, are decent, faithful, and peaceful. We use the terms "Islamicism" and "radical Islamicist" to refer to the violent, extremist, and radically intolerant religious-political movement that now threatens the world, including the Muslim world.

This radical, violent movement opposes not only certain U.S. and western policies -- some signatories to this letter also oppose some of those policies -- but also a foundational principle of the modern world, religious tolerance, as well as those fundamental human rights, in particular freedom of conscience and religion, that are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that must be the basis of any civilization oriented to human flourishing, justice, and peace.

This extremist movement claims to speak for Islam, but betrays fundamental Islamic principles. Islam sets its face against moral atrocities. For example, reflecting the teaching of the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet, Muslim scholars through the centuries have taught that struggle in the path of God (i.e., jihad) forbids the deliberate killing of noncombatants, and requires that military action be undertaken only at the behest of legitimate public authorities. They remind us forcefully that Islam, no less than Christianity, Judaism and other religions, is threatened and potentially degraded by these profaners who invoke God's name to kill indiscriminately.

We recognize that movements claiming the mantle of religion also have complex political, social, and demographic dimensions, to which due attention must be paid. At the same time, philosophy matters, and the animating philosophy of this radical Islamicist movement, in its contempt for human life, and by viewing the world as a life-and-death struggle between believers and unbelievers (whether non-radical Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, or others), clearly denies the equal dignity of all persons and, in doing so, betrays religion and rejects the very foundation of civilized life and the possibility of peace among nations.

Most seriously of all, the mass murders of September 11 demonstrated, arguably for the first time, that this movement now possesses not only the openly stated desire, but also the capacity and expertise -- including possible access to, and willingness to use, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons -- to wreak massive, horrific devastation on its intended targets.

Those who slaughtered more than 3,000 persons on September 11 and who, by their own admission, want nothing more than to do it again, constitute a clear and present danger to all people of good will everywhere in the world, not just the United States. Such acts are a pure example of naked aggression against innocent human life, a world-threatening evil that clearly requires the use of force to remove it.

Organized killers with global reach now threaten all of us. In the name of universal human morality, and fully conscious of the restrictions and requirements of a just war, we support our government's, and our society's, decision to use force of arms against them.


We Pledge TO DO all we can to guard against the harmful temptations -- especially those of arrogance and jingoism -- to which nations at war so often seem to yield. At the same time, with one voice we say solemnly that it is crucial for our nation and its allies to win this war. We fight to defend ourselves, but we also believe that we fight to defend those universal principles of human rights and human dignity that are the best hope for humankind.

One day, this war will end. When it does -- and in some respects even before it ends -- the great task of conciliation awaits us. We hope that this war, by stopping an unmitigated global evil, can increase the possibility of a world community based on justice. But we know that only the peacemakers among us in every society can ensure that this war will not have been in vain.

We wish especially to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Muslim societies. We say to you forthrightly: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. We have so much in common. There is so much that we must do together. Your human dignity, no less than ours -- your rights and opportunities for a good life, no less than ours -- are what we believe we're fighting for. We know that, for some of you, mistrust of us is high, and we know that we Americans are partly responsible for that mistrust. But we must not be enemies. In hope, we wish to join with you and all people of good will to build a just and lasting peace.


Enola Aird Director, The Motherhood Project; Council on Civil Society

John Atlas President, National Housing Institute; Executive Director, Passaic County Legal Aid Society

Jay Belsky Professor and Director, Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, Birkbeck University of London

David Blankenhorn President, Institute for American Values

David Bosworth University of Washington

R. Maurice Boyd Minister, The City Church, New York

Gerard V. Bradley Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame

Margaret F. Brinig Edward A. Howry Distinguished Professor, University of Iowa College of Law

Allan Carlson President, The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society

Khalid DurĂ¡n Editor, TransIslam Magazine

Paul Ekman Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco

Jean Bethke Elshtain Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago Divinity School

Amitai Etzioni University Professor, The George Washington University

Hillel Fradkin President, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Samuel G. Freedman Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Francis Fukuyama Bernard Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University

William A. Galston Professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland; Director, Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy

Claire Gaudiani Senior research scholar, Yale Law School and former president, Connecticut College

Robert P. George McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of Politics, Princeton University

Neil Gilbert Professor at the School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley

Mary Ann Glendon Learned Hand Professor of Law, Harvard University Law School

Norval D. Glenn Ashbel Smith Professor of Sociology and Stiles Professor of American Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Os Guinness Senior Fellow, Trinity Forum

David Gutmann Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Education, Northwestern University

Kevin J. "Seamus" Hasson President, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Sylvia Ann Hewlett Chair, National Parenting Association

James Davison Hunter William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Executive Director, Center on Religion and Democracy, University of Virginia

Samuel Huntington Albert J. Weatherhead, III, University Professor, Harvard University

Byron Johnson Director and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania

James Turner Johnson Professor, Department of Religion, Rutgers University

John Kelsay Richard L. Rubenstein Professor of Religion, Florida State University

Diane Knippers President, Institute on Religion and Democracy

Thomas C. Kohler Professor of Law, Boston College Law School

Glenn C. Loury Professor of Economics and Director, Institute on Race and Social Division, Boston University

Harvey C. Mansfield William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government, Harvard University

Will Marshall President, Progressive Policy Institute

Richard J. Mouw President, Fuller Theological Seminary

Daniel Patrick Moynihan University Professor, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

John E. Murray, Jr. Chancellor and Professor of Law, Duquesne University

Michael Novak George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy, American Enterprise Institute

Rev. Val J. Peter Executive Director, Boys and Girls Town

David Popenoe Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the National Marriage Project, Rutgers University

Robert D. Putnam Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Gloria G. Rodriguez Founder and President, AVANCE, Inc.

Robert Royal President, Faith & Reason Institute

Nina Shea Director, Freedom's House's Center for Religious Freedom

Fred Siegel Professor of History, The Cooper Union

Theda Skocpol Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard University

Katherine Shaw Spaht Jules and Frances Landry Professor of Law, Louisiana State University Law Center

Max L. Stackhouse Professor of Christian Ethics and Director, Project on Public Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

William Tell, Jr. The William and Karen Tell Foundation

Maris A. Vinovskis Bentley Professor of History and Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan

Paul C. Vitz Professor of Psychology, New York University

Michael Walzer Professor at the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study

George Weigel Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Charles Wilson Director, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi

James Q. Wilson Collins Professor of Management and Public Policy Emeritus, UCLA

John Witte, Jr. Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Ethics and Director, Law and Religion Program, Emory University Law School

Christopher Wolfe Professor of Political Science, Marquette University

Daniel Yankelovich President, Public Agenda

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