Dear France: Don’t Make the Same Mistake We Did

Dear France: Don’t Make the Same Mistake We Did November 16, 2015

It’s Not War, It’s Murder: 
Why the Language We Use about Terrorist Attacks Really Matters.



My heart goes out to the people of France, especially the residents of Paris. When faced with such unspeakable violence and barbarism humans cannot help but experience a visceral loss of our sense of security. The fear resulting from such a loss can send us straight into our limbic system, and it’s fight, flight, or freeze. America came out fighting. Will France have the discipline to choose an alternative response?

In the wake of 9/11 theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas pointed out that President Bush and American leaders made a massive tactical mistake in terms of the language they used to describe the attacks. They called it an act of war. But it wasn’t war. It was murder.

I see the leaders of France making the same mistake. This was not an act of war, this was cold blooded murder. Those who planned and executed the attacks are not warriors. They are murderers. The moment you call an act of terrorism an act of war you give the perpetrators of such violence exactly what they want. You elevate them to a status far beyond what they deserve.

This was not an act of war. This was an act of murder, and great nations don’t go to war because of murder.

Turning a plane load of civilians into a smart bomb is not an act of war, it’s an act of lunacy. Turning the peaceful public sporting events, concerts, and restaurants into bloodbaths is not act act of war, it is an act of madness. When Americans adopted the language of war in order to describe the hijacking of airplanes and flying them fully fueled and loaded with people into buildings, we normalized that behavior, categorizing it as collateral damage in this horrific thing we call war.

I beg the people of France not to make the same mistake America did. When America adopted the language of war it initiated not one, but two wars at the cost of trillions of dollars and untold lives, not to mention a massive financial recession. The major result of those wars was the creation of ISIS, the organization now taking credit for planning and executing the violence in Paris. Our strategy of war has not been very effective in terms of quelling global terrorism, and it has eroded all of the goodwill we experienced after 9/11.

Call terrorism an act of war and you unwittingly surrender the high ground. Call it murder, and you name these acts and their perpetrators much more accurately. Call it murder and you can still promise to hunt down the murderers and bring them to justice, but this time you can say: we refuse to stoop to your level. We could bomb you into oblivion but we wont, because we’re better than that. We will not become murderers like you. We refuse to seek revenge and retribution, and the world will see our true colors. We promise to bring these murderers to justice, but we refuse to join the ranks of ordinary nations by acting rashly.

Nations have already begun to rain down bombs in response to the violence in Paris. If you continue down this road and let slip the dogs of war I can promise two things will happen.

First, you will find out that going to war with radical Islam will not make you safer, and it will not make you happy. You may get a momentary buzz of actually doing something in response, but the euphoria will be replaced by the cries of mourning as your sons and daughters are lost to war. War will never satisfy the longing you have right now, because what you long for is peace, and the road to peace only comes through forgiveness.

Second, you will find that once you go down the road of war with radical Islam, you cannot control the outcomes. You can have the most powerful military, the best strategy, the greatest leaders, and the most virtuous intentions in the world, and you still won’t be able to determine outcomes to your satisfaction. War in the Middle East will always go sideways because the West has more to lose. Desperate poverty makes for a dangerous enemy. Those who fight wars on terror will invest more and more money, relational capital, and lives with very little to show for it in the end. The only way to vanquish this enemy is to make them a friend. If France will have the imagination and discipline to pursue peace with as much creativity and vigor as the U.S. pursued war, they may well lead the way to a better future.

Compared to France, America is still a relatively young nation. We made the mistake of youth. We responded to our tragedy by calling it war instead of murder. Maybe, if we had the discipline to call it murder, we would have more quickly heeded the wisdom of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who said,

“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

To the people of France I say: you have the benefit of maturity and many more centuries of experience. I urge you not to make the mistake of youth. Don’t call it war. Call it murder. Don’t try to murder murder. The only way forward is for France to do what America was unable to do: find the high road, and take it. Find a way to forgive. If you don’t, you only have yourselves to blame. If you do, you will prove yourselves to be a great nation.

"I'll admit to being selfish, I'm just faithing somewhere else. Man, it's crazy out there. ..."

The Ragamuffin and the Walking Wall
"I think half the battle is recognizing what my instinct is. I can do all ..."

The Ragamuffin and the Walking Wall
"The question I usually got from people is "How did we get here?" People don't ..."

The Ragamuffin and the Walking Wall
"Yes Deborah, there are still some genuine "ordinary Christians" left who did not surrender their ..."

The Troubling Theology of Donald Trump

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • scott stone

    “This was an act of murder, and great nations don’t go to war because of murder.”
    Yes they do! I’m thinking of 19 year old Gavrilo Princip.

    I must say the “lets be friends with them” idea is rather naive.

    • [the “lets be friends with them” idea is rather naïve]

      Who are you quoting?

      • scott stone

        My apologies for taking parenthetical liberties.
        “The only way to vanquish this enemy is to make them a friend.”
        This is a bit naive. Better?

    • Tim_Suttle

      Is the cross naive?

      • scott stone

        A couple of years ago my sister-in-law and I were having a lively discussion around the stability/instability of the American economy. She being a portfolio manager with Morgan Stanley had a vast array of information at her fingertips from their chief economists to support her position that large economic growth was just around the corner. I on the other hand only had the limited knowledge of economics that I gathered in Grad School many years ago along with my work experience in the manufacturing sector. My company works with all different types of manufacturers from foundry’s to machine shops throughout the Midwest. My position was that things weren’t as peachy as the wizards of smart on Wall Street were predicting. She was incredulous regarding my position. How could I, with my vastly inferior data argue with those who are recognized to be experts in their field.
        The conversation ended after one last question. She asked me if I thought I was smarter than her analysts. Now I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but I know a question that isn’t meant to be answered when I hear one. Stating yes would show an arrogance on my part and answering no concedes the argument to her. It is an argument by rhetorical question. No different than your question “Is the cross naive?” I’ll admit it’s a clever question on your part but one that I’m not going to get in the weeds and answer.
        ISIL is an entity like no other we have ever dealt with and I’m sorry but friendship is not what they seek. The response to the Charlie Hebdo attack was much like you are advocating for and what did it get the people of France? It got them Bataclan. Slogans and hashtag foreign policy will not resolve this situation. Remember #Bringbackourgirls? This is naivete at its worst.
        I’m all for a peaceful resolution when it is actually an option but in this situation peace is also something ISIL is not interested in. We can look to Hauerwas all we want and quote him at length but the truth is they’d kill him in an instant without even thinking. This is who we are dealing with.

        • Tim_Suttle

          sounds like Rome…

          • scott stone

            Well I’m not advocating for a Leonine wall if that is what you are referring to. I’m just stating that friendship with ISIL, Boko Haram, AQAP, et al is not possible. Hell I’ve got a son stationed in the middle east. Believe me a peaceful resolution is what my wife and I are always hoping for. But I am a realist.

      • Father Thyme

        Worse, the cross was Bad.

        Hector Avalos (2015) The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

  • While I respect your desire that our response be measured and not provoke civilian deaths that could radicalize more people – this was in fact as was 9/11 an act of war. A murder is something done by an individual or small group of individuals for the purpose of ending their lives. An act of war is an act that may be considered murderous but it has as its goal the subjugation of one group of people to the will of another. Make no mistake, the people who did this did not want to just kill a few people they want to subjugate the world to their will. Using euphemisms that don;t have a basis in reality may be a good rhetorical move, tha cheers the hearts fo those who think like you but it does not actually convince those opposed, as it creates a false premise, which wil lbe rejected at the outset.. The truth is people are at war with us. You can present various ways to respond but to compare what is happening to first degree murder is to deny the reality. When a murder is committed teh authorities go about punishing it and the rest of us leave it alone unless we are witnesses. When there is a war the entire group attacked must be involved to make sacrifices and as you are saying decide the BEST course of action. War requires that the entire populace be aware of the danger and committed to the steps to win it. We did not witness a murder but an act of war. Now debate how to fight it, but don;t pretend it is not a war.

    • Larry

      The language of war plays into the hands of ISIS. They want a global war comprised of Muslims vs. Infidels. Our language and treatment of Muslims fuels their agenda and welcomes those rejected by the West. When will Christians refuse to adopt a response that mirrors the brutality we detest? Our knee jerk reactions clearly demonstrates a lack of a moral imagination and the creativity to halt the cycle of violence fueled by revenge. We should be making friends with Muslims who are equally outraged by ISIS and welcome those fleeing their barbarity. Only in an expression of solidarity fueled by love will we build a coalition that will unmask evil and counter the rhetoric and propaganda essential to recruitment to ISIS twisted agenda. We should see every Muslim seeking refuge as embodying a counter narrative empowered to become a voice of opposition. Suppose war was not a credible option how would your response be framed?

      • Actually we can be friendly to war the majority of Muslims and make no mistake that a group of them want to destroy our way of life. We are not adopting a knee jerk reaction. We actually have been watching these people develop for two years, adopting an extremely gradual approach that has included trying to keep it low key. We have been working iwth moderate Muslims in teh area for decades. We are not mirroring at all their brutality we slap incredibly strict rules of engagement on our armed forces adn punish rather then exalt those who violate them. even today as Operation Tidal Wave II unfolds we are taking steps to preserve the overall infrastructure of the ISIS controlled areas in order to limit the amount of rebuilding necessary, when it would be easier to just truly bomb away. We should indeed seek to help everyone, but vetting them to make sure we are not inadvertently allowing somme to pose as good Muslims seeking refuge when some might be using our good will to kll us. Remember even those who in the Pairs attacks were “European Nationals” they indeed used the freedoms and good will of the country in order to infiltrate and do their deeds. Europe has for years been taking immigrants, many of whom are wonderful citizens, but there is also a phenomenon of non-integration and using the freedoms to build terror networks. The 9/11 operatives came here legally using our good will. Not every person seeking refuge want to be a counter voice – some may be here for other reasons. And why limit it to Muslims – why are we not accepting Christians, why is our government denying genocide status to Christians but granitng it for other religious minorities. We can also be very open to refugees but still recognize that we are at war with some. All is not so clear here. It is not whether or now war is a credible option war has been visited upon us by them unilaterally. I guess if self defense was not an option we would be fleeing to Mexico as the current Syrian refugees are fleeing to us and Europe. Essentially you want us to accept the defenseless here only to render ourselves defenselessness – after all you are admitting they innocently suffer there.

        • Larry

          It is a knee jerk reaction when our dominate response to terrorism is always a military solution. As good as our war machine is at killing, it’s not very good at peacemaking. We may have under estimated the level of resentment that Muslims have concerning the ongoing occupation of their country and the buzzing of drones overhead sending fear that another missile is on its way. How do innocent casualties distinguish from the violence of ISIS and that caused by a drone? To a Muslim we’re (US) are fighting terror with terror. Should we close our borders to all but Christians? Do you know that Christians are not part of those fleeing ISIS terrorism? The extension of good will can certainly be abused, but the building of trust comes with actions that do not label the many because of a few. With 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, the likes of ISIS, the Taliban, and Al-queda do not even amount to 0.001% of those who call themselves Muslim. Fear has a way of dehumanizing the other and exaggerating the strength of the enemy. The practice of a peaceful co-existence with our Muslim neighbors creates an awareness of an alternative way and empowers the powerless to speak out against hatred and violence. Solidarity of Christians and Muslims against violence is the last thing ISIS wants. The problem is that some Christians and Muslims will see this as a compromise to faith and therefore to be resisted. So while ISIS calls for Jihad, many Christians can only envision retaliatory air strikes in response. And the cycle continues as the seeds of hate and violence await the opportune time to strike back. But its hard to imagine an alternative to war except fight or flight. My proposal is not to directly persuade ISIS but to speak to the broader Muslim and Christian communities to live out an alternative narrative. That might capture the imagination of people who long to live in peace.

          • scott stone

            I’m sorry but your statistic that less than 0.001% are the likes of ISIS, Al-queda, et al is very misleading. What is important is the percentage of those who are in support of their philosophy because it is they who can become the next suicide bomber. A median of 57% across 11 Muslim countries surveyed hold an unfavorable view of these groups according to recent Pew research. That leaves a rather large number that hold a neutral or positive view. Reviewing the population of these 11 countries shows that your number is substantially off.

          • Larry

            The numbers of those who are Jihadist— Al-Qaeda, 10,000 (0.000625%); Taliban, 36,000 (o.oo225%; ISIS 80-100,000 (0.00625%). Muslims throughout the world– 1.6 Billion. You do the math— mine was a general estimate. Did your survey ask if they favored the barbaric tactics of ISIS— including the killing of Muslims? When was the survey conducted? Maybe it is your stats that “is very misleading”. How many of the 1 million refugees would have a positive assessment of ISIS?

          • scott stone

            It was the Pew Research poll from 2014 and there wasn’t anything misleading. Just straight up researched numbers as opposed to “a general estimate.” And even if we use your figure of 0.001%, that equates to 1,600,000 Jihadis. That’s a hell of a problem.

          • Father Thyme

            Those sort of statistics work only if Democrats are trying to demonize gun-owners.

          • bigmutt

            Good points you make there, Scott; I concur with yours rather than Larry’s simplistic argument of the weak “stats” he provides: a Muslim does not need to “favor” any ISIS tactics (especially during survey questions) while holding sympathetic views towards the broader issue of hoping eventually that all infidels convert to their Islamic beliefs.
            It’s frightening to consider what percentage of Islamic believers in Muslim countries around the world favor, for example, Sharia law in place of the secular legal systems they currently enjoy.
            Larry, who seems to be enamored with “stats” should look at those stats in, for example, Indonesia and Pakistan … and that part of the world.

          • Except we did not ocupy their country at all – if anything we set them to autonomy so quickly we could not even ensure we had set up somehtiong stable in place of the brtal dictator.

          • Phleb
          • Phleb
          • Phleb

            “Do you know that Christians are not part of those fleeing ISIS terrorism?”

            Most incredibly stupid comment I’ve read this year!

      • Father Thyme

        > We should see every Muslim seeking refuge as embodying a counter narrative empowered to become a voice of opposition.

        That “counter narrative” worked out real well for France.

        • zachary

          How so? You do know by now that none of the attackers have been POSITIVELY ID as refugees?

          • Father Thyme

            What is the single identifying characteristic of the attackers? Hint: they ain’t Amish.

          • zachary

            Ah, got it. Be awful to brown people and the world will be a better place. Your hate is not that different than ISIS maybe you should join them.

          • Father Thyme

            I don’t hate. Your idiocy is no different than ISIS; maybe you should join them.

          • zachary

            The person who wants to lump all people of the same/similar ancestory/ethnicity because of fear and ignorance is calling my position idiotic. You are filled with so much fear, you can’t even see how it funnels your hate.

          • Father Thyme

            > same/similar ancestory/ethnicity

            I didn’t do that. Keep proving your complete idiocy.

            > You are filled with so much fear

            You’re psychologically projecting. If you want to discuss more about yourself, I’m listening.

          • bigmutt

            where have I seen the “play the race card” tactic before??
            Oh yeah: whenever you exhaust all other emotional arguments (or … heaven forbid, actual solid, defensible arguments.)

          • Phleb

            Brown people?

  • Rick

    “If France will have the imagination and discipline to pursue peace with as much creativity and vigor as the U.S. pursued war, they may well lead the way to a better future.”

    That assumes that the enemy wants peace. It also means understanding what we are dealing with:

    “The latest terrorist attacks in Paris serve as a grim reminder that
    the threat of global terrorism is unlikely to end until the resolution of the
    civil war of ideas between Muslim modernisers and those adhering to an outmoded theology of Islamic dominance. Just as the post-9/11 war against
    al-Qaeda degraded Osama bin Laden’s group but gave rise to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), extremist Islamist ideology will likely give birth to “Terrorism 3.0” once the world has fought, contained and eliminated Isil. Security will return only after the widespread embrace of pluralism by Muslims and the defeat and marginalisation of the idea that Muslims cannot move in an orbit set by another…With over 1.4 billion Muslims around the globe, the swelling of the fundamentalist ranks poses serious problems. If only 1 per cent of the world’s Muslims accepts this uncompromising theology, and 10 per cent of that 1-per cent decide to commit themselves to a radical agenda, we are looking at a one million strong recruitment pool for groups such as al-Qaeda, IS and whatever comes next. Only a concerted ideological campaign against medieval Islamist ideology, like the one that discredited and contained communism, could turn the tide.”
    – Husain Haqqani, senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington DC, served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States between 2008 and 2011.

  • Anne Fenwick

    Are you aware that France has been engaged in military action against ISIS for some time, and has now stepped up its campaign?

  • Guthrum

    Putin: “payback time !”

  • JC is a lefty

    Fight fire with fire and everyone gets burned

    • Phleb

      I can tell you’re not a forestry firefighter.

  • Mike Ward

    Why don’t you fly over to Syria and find a member of ISIS to hug? I’m sure he’ll understand you are one of the good Westerners and not evil like the rest of us. He might even kill you quickly and painlessly.

  • iain lovejoy

    This (unlike many terrorist attacks, including arguably 911) was an act of war because it was funded planned and executed against one state (France) as a deliberate policy by another de-facto state (the Islamic State) as part of its prosecution of an armed conflict between them.
    It is still a terrorist attack and a crime, but the above is relevant because, unlike a conventional terrorist organisation Islamic State has a territory, armed forces and in effect government against which conventional war can be waged.

  • candide

    I have rarely read such baloney (excuse me, bologna).

  • DQ

    Extremely thoughtful and helpful, thank you for standing with Europe at this point in time.

  • Splitting the difference between war and murder regarding Paris (or 9-11 for that matter) appears to apply distinctions that I’m not sure are particularly useful. The the Viking raid at Lindisfarne in 793 sent shock waves through the kingdoms of England. The Norsemen looted the monastery and butchered the monks. Clearly murder. But in the following century the raiding activity increased and eventually became full-scale invasion.

    What we think of as terrorism is an aspect of war as it has been practiced throughout most of human history. Threaten and practice atrocities on familiar innocents to compel an action. What ISIS does is no different from an ancient invader skewering children before the walls of a defended city.

    What started as low-level raiding in England eventually crushed the Anglo-Saxon kings. Except one. Following a disaster at Chippenham in January 878, Alfred of Wessex was reduced to hiding in the marshes of the Somerset Levels. From there he regrouped to build an army and defeat the Danes.

    When confronting an enemy like ISIS is there is no moral high ground. Only islands in the swamp.

  • KevinWarren

    I understand what you’re saying Tim. War is waged by nation states. These terrorists are not a nation state and to call this a war it elevates them to a state they don’t possess. That said, this is a war.

    It’s a war between Satan and God. It’s been waging for centuries. We humans are foot soldiers either on the side of Satan or on the side of God.

    This is war Tim. And it will not end. Not until our Lord returns and ends it Himself. You know this. Or at least you should.

    So call it what it is. And understand that those on both sides wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

    Pray for out Muslim kin and pray for peace but please don’t minimize the war that is being waged all around us. To do so is to ignore the Word.

    • Robin

      I do agree that warfare between good and bad goes on all the time, but in this case I know for a fact that the radical Muslims are bad but I would be very hesitant to say that we are good and that God is on our side. I think this situation is complex and tainted by the sinfulness that attaches itself to all our affairs.

  • JC is a lefty

    nukes at the ready!