Pondering war and peace in a time of national crisis

College students see Afghanistan conflict in ethical context

October 13, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Even before the United States launched air attacks on Afghanistan, Francesca Coviello weighed in with a reasoned opinion that the American response was ethically unwarranted.

"I felt it was unjust to the innocent people of Afghanistan who might be killed or wounded even though they're not combatants," says Coviello, a 21-year-old senior at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Coviello, who is from Garrett County, didn't shout her opinion in an anti-war protest. She crafted it in a paper assigned by Stephen Vicchio, a professor of philosophy at the north Baltimore college.

Across Maryland, students are grappling with questions of right and wrong, good and evil, revenge and justice. Is America engaged in a just war? Is there a strong enough possibility of success to justify the air raids? Were all peaceful alternatives to war exhausted before the bombing began? What will "victory" entail?

The themes are raised in many college classes, but it's in philosophy, religion and ethics that they get the fullest airing, says Vicchio, who's been teaching philosophy at Notre Dame for 20 years. "These warfare themes go back for centuries," he says. "War is the grist of the philosopher's mill."

In the month since the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Vicchio says, he has noticed a change in the attitudes of his students: "It's amazing how incredibly reflective we've become about the meaning and purpose of our lives. It turns out that the lives we led before Sept. 11 weren't as meaningful as we thought they were. [This realization is] a good thing, too, because waging war requires us to be as self-reflective as we can possibly be."

Beth Gardner, another senior in Vicchio's legal ethics class, agrees. Gardner, 21, from Frederick, says she's disappointed that "a lot of people haven't weighed the consequences. They've just reacted without thinking."

The students agreed that to lash out reflexively would have been a mistake. "I call it the big mojo," says Vicchio. "It comes from the darkest part of the human - to kill before we've thought out why we're doing it."

At Western Maryland College in Westminster, many students had stereotypical views of Muslims, says Mark Hadley, assistant professor of religious studies. "They thought of a jihad [Muslim holy war] as a campaign to slaughter all Westerners. It's much more complicated than that, and that's what we've been talking about," he says.

Hadley's impression is that the majority of students support America's retaliation. "But not all," he says. "I have some who take the pacifist view that an eye for an eye makes everyone blind."

Hadley teaches a course titled "Martin and Malcolm," in which students study the lives and views of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Last week he assigned a paper, "What Would Martin Think?" about the events of September and October.

"Some [students thought King's nonviolent philosophy should extend beyond the national frontier. Others wrote that we have a right to self-defense."

At Notre Dame, before Vicchio assigned his legal ethics class the paper on defining the notion of a "just war," he discussed with his students the writings and sayings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, American Catholic bishops and George W. Bush. Gardner says there was soul-searching but that the majority of her classmates believe the Sept. 11 attack on America justified retaliation.

Most of Vicchio's just-war criteria are those approved by the U.S. bishops in 1983 as the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, but they're rooted in the Middle Ages.

Among them: A just war must confront a real and certain danger; there must be a probability of success; the intention during the conflict must be the pursuit of peace and reconciliation (not capturing territory). And the damage inflicted and costs incurred must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.

This last principle, called proportionality, is one of the most difficult for students to grasp, says Vicchio. For answers, he assigns the writings of Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian philosopher and theologian.

Aquinas' writings are among the "great books" taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, but Dean Harvey Flaumenhaft says there's no conscious effort at St. John's to relate the works of great thinkers to current events.

"It just comes up naturally," Flaumenhaft says, "because when you deal with things that are timeless, like revenge, justice and violence, it's often very timely.

For example, he says, after Sept. 11, St. John's freshmen were completing their reading of Homer's Odyssey.

"Odysseus comes home after a 10-year journey and finds his home has been messed up by other people. ... Does he seek justice on the one hand or revenge on the other? At some point the students realized that the theme wasn't so long ago and far away. They said, `Oh, my God, we're talking about now.'"

America's new war also brings into play what freedom means, Vicchio says. He says there are two kinds of freedom - freedom from (violence, hunger, crime, terror) and freedom to (assemble, speak, worship).

"All great societies in history have balanced the two," says Vicchio. "Right now, we are taking from our freedoms to in order protect our freedoms from, namely crime and terror."

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