The shattering events of 9/11 left me with two indelible, if somewhat divergent, impressions. One was that deliberately targeting defenseless persons to compel acquiescence or support as occurred in the assaults on the Twin Towers and elsewhere represented “a kind of blasphemy against our deepest moral commitments,” in Michael Walzer’s words, and that if anything justifies the use of force in response, that does.

But if I was clear about the rightness of using force to combat terrorism, I was not at all clear, in a second impression, how that should be done. The temptation of states to use wanton attacks as an excuse for illicitly suspending civil liberties and legal safeguards is well-documented. In fact, my early worries were borne out by the records of the Bush and Obama administrations. 

Though the Bush people pledged their fealty to international norms and procedures, they generally ignored them in practice. Their notorious efforts to normalize torture; their official declarations of unlimited unilateral authority to use force where, when, and how they saw fit; and their perverse disregard of UN Security Council procedures in resolving to invade Iraq all betokened a tendency to begin to replicate the very lawlessness terrorists are guilty of. 

Force is a legitimate tool in combating terrorism, but how it shall be used requires conscientious and sustained scrutiny that is hard to come by.

The Obama administration displayed highhandedness in a different way. Partly because of the failure of congressional oversight, they took it upon themselves to expand the meaning of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to include enemies not foreseen by Congress in 2001, and by increasing the use of drone attacks, broadening the category of legitimate targets, and keeping the whole policy secret, they evaded accountability to international and domestic norms and procedures. Moreover, the responses of both administrations to 9/11 resulted in the militarization of domestic policing, the untoward consequences of which we are still experiencing.

My original impressions are still with me. Force is a legitimate tool in combating terrorism, but how it shall be used requires conscientious and sustained scrutiny that is hard to come by.

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