The World Trade Centre and Just War


It is a crime crying out to heaven for vengeance. The living hell suffered by the office workers in the World Trade Centre and the passengers and crew of the four planes was horrific, and those who did it and who celebrated it were barbaric. The natural urge is for revenge, and not from purely from heaven, either. A military response may be called for, but revenge is not a good motive for this.

So what sort of military response, if any, is appropriate? Sometimes it is good to look to the past, and most specifically to the doctrine of “just war.” If war has to be fought, it should be fought to rules in that way we can maintain our civilisation without descending to the barbarism of bin Laden. The most commonly accepted body of Just War doctrine is that of St. Thomas Aquinas, from his Summa Theologica. I have used a summary of Aquinian just war principles from Vincent Ferraro of Mount Holyoke, and although there are many disagreements with every interpretation of this, I believe that this is an accurate rendering of them:

A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All nonviolent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.

It is fairly safe to say that nonviolent options have been exhausted, at least in the short term. There is little that can be done in the next few days that will stop future terrorist attacks. In the long term the west will have to reassess its support of Israel. If unconditionally supporting Israel is really worth the terror, and the subsequent loss of liberty, then by all means support Israel. However, be sure to realise that this is not a cost-free option. We will also have to ask serious questions as to whether the terrible sufferings of the Iraqi people (who are civilians as well) is worth the terror that may be inflicted on us. One thing that has been forgotten by many people is that the bulk of suffering in Iraq and the West Bank has been borne by civilians, and so terrorists see our civilians as a natural target.

A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority.

The US is obviously a legitimate authority.

A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered.

Redress is not revenge. If an attack can seriously break up a terrorist organisation aimed at America, then this is just. If an attack is to force a nation to stop harbouring those aiming at your destruction, then it is just. If the aim is to simply bomb any target, like the infamous Khartoum aspirin factory, it is wrong no matter how much this may emotionally sate the outrage of the West.

A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.

Terrorism cannot be eradicated. To fight a permanent war against this elusive and ever-changing method will simply enhance the power of the state, and will do nothing to eradicate the method. To fight a war against fundamentalist Islamic groups that operate on western soil and the governments that harbour them may yield results. The talk of people like Tony Blair and Colin Powell, of the need to finish off terrorism is hopefully just a rash reaction to a horrid attack. If the war is not limited in its aims then we may be in for a war as unwinnable as the war on drugs.

The ultimate goal of a just war is to reestablish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.

A state of permanent control and lack of freedom is a real possibility. To kill democracy in an attempt to save it will be a tragedy. It is highly debatable that the goal of the terrorists is to wipe out western civilisation (we must be aware of the difference between a concrete goal and a vague wish). Take the Irish analogy. The IRA has the goal of bypassing the democratic process and imposing minority rule in Ulster. This may be despicable, especially in regard to the methods in which they are using, but it is not aiming to overthrow the established order on the British mainland. We have to be clear as to what the goal of the Islamic terrorists is, and assess just what we are prepared to lose in countering it.

There is a secondary issue, and that is the impression that terror can force changes. In a sense it is easier to react to Islamic terrorists in this way as they are aiming at massive US retaliation, and indiscriminate bombing will give them precisely what they want. However it is an odd situation, because if we let the idea that terror must not be allowed to change our course make us steadfastly stay in a situation that we would have pulled out of otherwise, well they have changed our course.

We must also remember that the ultimate goal is to establish peace, and a permanent war will not establish peace.

The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.

Nuking em until they glow is not proportional to what happened at the World Trade Centre.

The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians.

This is not a doctrine of just war that the West finds easy to maintain, as we saw in Serbia. We must remember that one of the goals of the fundamentalists is to radicalise Arab opinion, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians will do just that. Pragmatism as well as justice demands a clinical strike.

What Is To Be Done?

It is not clear what sort of response, if any, should be carried out. I believe that a strike against bin Laden’s organisation, if it has a chance of success and if it has been proved that he was behind it, would be justified as it would remove a threat to the United States. However an act of war merely to “let off steam” would be unjustifiable, as well as counterproductive.

The idea that war should be conducted within a moral framework may seem like a quaint medieval practice, but as speech separates humans from the apes, so morality separates civilisation from the barbarians.

Emmanuel Goldstein is the pseudonym of a political drifter on the fringes of English classical liberal and Euro-skeptic activity. He is a regular contributors to

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