Terrorism And ‘Just War’

by David Heim

Mr. Heim is a Century assistant editor.

The mainstream of Christian ethics has contended that there can be a legitimate or ‘just” use of military force — legitimacy being determined by a variety of factors, such as the presence of a “just cause,” “right authority,” “last resort,” and the use of “means proportional to the end.” Four different authors present their perspectives.


The mainstream of Christian ethics has contended that there can be a legitimate or ‘just” use of military force — legitimacy being determined by a variety of factors, such as the presence of a “just cause,” “right authority,” “last resort,” and the use of “means proportional to the end.” Four different authors present their perspectives.

Moral Challenges

By Martin L. Cook

Martin L. Cook is professor of military studies and ethics at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The United States is said to be "at war." There is no question that it has been viciously attacked on its own soil; there is no question that it is now engaged in sustained and large-scale military operations beyond its borders. From the perspective of the just war tradition, however, the nature of this war raises intellectual and practical moral challenges.

Throughout its modern history, just war has been premised on the concept that war is a conflict among states; yet in this "war" the primary conflict (at least initially) is with al-Qaeda, a nonstate actor. Concepts of victory and reasonable hope of success are usually conceived of in terms of conflict with a state possessing authority capable of surrender, of negotiating terms, and of exercising effective authority over its surrendered forces to ensure respect for cease-fires and surrenders. All these elements are conspicuously lacking, at least at this stage in the current conflict. These, and many other distinctive elements of this conflict, pose challenges to existing moral frameworks for assessing the use of military force.

Although space will not permit exploration of the point here, it is important to note that Christian thought about just war predated the rise of the modern state system in the 17th century, and rests on fundamental moral principles not essentially tied to that system. Instead, it was concerned only to locate the competent authority to redress wrong and repel violence. Neither a presumption against war nor the existence of sovereign states is fundamental to the just war tradition throughout its long history; use of force to repel evil is. It is worthwhile to recall that the first exercise of U.S. military power well beyond its borders was the repression of piracy by the Barbary Pirates on the high seas -- not an interstate conflict at all. Instead, the U.S. used force for what in modern parlance one might call "international order" considerations.

With these qualifications, we come to the central question: In what senses, then, are "war" and the ethical standards attached to it transferable to the present conflict?

First, while the just cause for the use of military force in this instance is not interstate aggression, there can be no question that violence of the scale of the September 11 events justifies use of military force in response and in order to eliminate if possible the agents’ capability to launch similar attacks in the future.

The fundamental moral concern to protect innocent human life is not, however, overridden, even in the face of such violence. This means that any morally appropriate military response must still address just war issues such as "reasonable hope of success" and proportionality. The practical implications of these points are clear, even if somewhat unpalatable for those not accustomed to thinking in practical terms about military matters.

First, the ability to use military force with due respect to such considerations is absolutely contingent on the quality and quantity of the intelligence information available. Those concerned with the moral dimensions of this "war" wish above all for very, very good spies. Only that capability will make it possible to locate with precision the targets of legitimate attack.

Second, while use of the military instrument of national power is clearly justified in this circumstance, a prudent policy will recognize that military force is only one arrow in a fairly well-stocked quiver of coercive instruments. Another critical element is intergovernmental cooperation to choke off the terrorists’ money supplies. This will involve taking or freezing assets directly when they can be identified, but also destroying drug crops and blocking the transfers of funding to al-Qaeda and the religious "education" institutions that provide its recruiting base. Such efforts must be systematic and consistent, even if they target states that claim to be our friends -- including some in possession of natural resources vital to our prosperity and power (a fact which, to put it mildly, greatly complicates matters).

The "right intention" element of just war has important implications in this conflict as well. Mere revenge is not a worthy or morally acceptable motive for our military efforts. Classically, the legitimate end of war is a restoration of the status quo ante, the situation as it existed before the conflict commenced. What would that standard mean in a war such as this? Unlike conventional war, it obviously does not mean that the other nation’s tanks are back on their side of the border. Even in that conventional case, there is broad permission not only to restore the literal location of forces, but also to build in security guarantees that make it unlikely they will commit aggression again.

Similar considerations should guide our thinking in this case. It will not be enough merely to eliminate the particular bad actors responsible for these particular acts of terror. To the greatest extent possible, the U.S., in cooperation with other nations, must attempt to build an environment which enables the securities and comfortable routines of the pre-September 11 environment to return to American life. At a minimum, this means increased international cooperation to share intelligence on terrorist groups, to starve them of funding and "safe harbor" from other states, and the will to repress and eliminate them preemptively whenever intelligence is sufficient to warrant such actions.

Space does not permit exploration of the many additional important issues to be considered as we proceed with our "war." The intellectual and practical challenge, however, is clear: to retain the core moral elements of the just war tradition, even as we acknowledge that they must be rethought, adapted and extended to cover our genuinely novel strategic situation.

Hearts and Minds

by Glen Stassen

Glen Stassen teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace and editor of Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.

Two principles of just war theory are reasonable hope of success and that there be a proportionality of means to ends. If the U.S. bombs Afghanistan until or even during Ramadan and winter snows, it will drive success and proportionality far beyond reach. If the aim is to curtail terrorism, then the means must remedy the causes of terrorism, not exacerbate them.

I have been engaged in developing another paradigm for the ethics of peace and war besides that of pacifism and just war theory -- just peacemaking. Just peacemaking theory names practices that prevent war and terrorism. It says we need to ask not only whether the war on Afghanistan is just. We need also to ask what practices of prevention can dissuade people from becoming terrorists.

One practice of just peacemaking -- independent initiatives -- is designed especially for contexts in which distrust and hostility block peacemaking. One side takes a series of visible initiatives to decrease the threat to the other side while not making itself defenseless, and invites reciprocation. The initiatives are announced in advance, and must be carried out on schedule so that they have a chance to decrease distrust. For example, President George W. Bush’s father took the independent initiative to remove nuclear-armed missiles from all U.S. surface ships. Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated, and additional initiatives yielded dramatic reductions of the nuclear threat. Independent initiatives are needed now if the campaign against terrorism is to succeed.

Afghanistan, already a desperately poor country, has had a four-year drought. It has no food reserves. The bombing and the Taliban response have caused distributors of food aid to leave the country. About 320 tons of food are needed each month to keep millions from starving. The food drops by bombers are mere drops in the bucket. By November 17, when Ramadan begins, snows will block roads and access to the people who are starving.

The first independent initiative required is an immediate bombing pause so food can be trucked in and delivered to the people. We need the initiative of a cease-fire so millions of Afghans can get food before the winter snows come. The second initiative is to continue the bombing pause during the month of Ramadan out of respect for Muslims. The third initiative is for Christians and churches to organize their own fasts during Ramadan, to identify with the hungry of the world, and to pray for peace and initiatives to alleviate the causes of terrorism. The fourth is to encourage Muslims also to meditate on initiatives they can take to persuade people not to become terrorists. These initiatives can begin to elicit a context for antiterrorism rather than more terrorism,

Others will fear that during the cease-fire the Taliban will arrange for the departure of Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan, and will promise not to be a haven for such terrorism. Then international support for bombing will fade, and peace might break out without removing the Taliban. Would that outcome be so disastrous as to outweigh the cost of the deaths of Afghans from starvation and war, the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and the turning of millions of Muslims against the campaign to curtail terrorism? Is the aim to vanquish the Taliban, or is it to end terrorism?

We need yet one more set of independent initiatives: Israeli initiatives toward justice for Palestinians. Said Cairo professor Emad Shahin: "Arabs are much more connected -- historically, culturally, emotionally -- to what’s going on in Palestine right now. Afghanistan is a question of harming people we feel are innocent, and there’s much concern about that. But Palestine -- this is totally different. As the situation gets out of control, we can’t take our minds off it" (Los Angeles Times, October 21).

In 1957, Israel, France and Great Britain were mobilizing to attack Egypt and take over the Suez Canal. President Eisenhower had the personal strength to say firmly: Stop. If you make war, the U.S. will stop supplying the oil your economies need. His firmness prevented a tragic conflict, and Israel is now safer because it has peace with Egypt.

President Bush rightly criticized the occupation of Palestinian cities by the Israeli army and urged the creation of a Palestinian state. Will he have the strength to say to Israel: take a series of initiatives to allow a viable, integrally united Palestinian state free of Israel’s troops, or the U.S. will stop supplying military aid to Israel? That initiative could reduce injustice for Palestinians, curtail Palestinian and Israeli violence, make Israel safer, and greatly increase Muslim and Arab support for the campaign against terrorism.

Seeking Justice

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her books include Augustine and the Limits of Politics. This article is adapted from remarks she made in Washington, D.C., in early October at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. For the full discussion, see www.pewforum. org..

Americans are evoking the language of justice to characterize the U.S. response to the despicable deeds perpetrated against innocent men, women and children on September 11. When they do this, they are tapping into the complex just war tradition. The origins of this tradition are usually traced to Augustine, who grappled in the fourth century with the undeniable fact that Christian teaching challenges any resort to violence. Augustine concluded that wars of aggression and aggrandizement are never acceptable, but that there are occasion when the resort to force may be tragically necessary -- never a normative good, but a tragic necessity

What makes the use of force justifiable? For Augustine, the most potent justification for using force is to protect the innocent. If one has compelling evidence that harm will come to persons unless coercive force is used, the requirement of neighborly love may entail a resort to arms.

Self-defense is a trickier issue for Christians. According to Augustine, it is better for Christians to suffer harm than to inflict it. But are we permitted to make that commitment to non-self-defense on behalf of others? I would say no.

One of the upshots of just war thinking is the rule of noncombatant immunity or discrimination, meaning that noncombatants must not be the intended targets of violence.

A further implication is that a deliberate action of terror against noncombatants is an injury that demands a response, demands punishment. The response should not be to inflict grievous harm on noncombatants, but to prevent further harm from taking place. To respond in such a way, abiding by certain limits, affirms a world of moral responsibility and justice. Not to respond to the attacks of September 11 would be to flee from the responsibility of government.

The Christian tradition tells us that government is instituted by God. This does not mean that every government is godly, but that every government is responsible to God for the common good of its people. As I said to a friend soon after September 11, "We are now reminded of what governments are for." None of the goods humans cherish, including the free exercise of religion, can flourish without a measure of civic peace and security If evil is permitted to grow, good goes into hiding.

What good do I have in mind? The simple but profound good of moms and dads raising their children, of citizens going to work on streets and subways, of ordinary people buying airplane tickets to visit their kids or to transact business, of faithful people being able to attend churches, synagogues and mosques without fear.

This quotidian idea -- tranquilitas ordinis, it’s called in the Christian tradition -- is a great good. It is not, of course, the peace of the kingdom promised in scripture. That peace awaits the end time. But ordinary peace is a good to be cherished. It is a good we charge our public officials with maintaining.

Though the just war tradition permits a limited resort to arms, it rejects an "anything goes" approach to violence. Responding justly to injustice is a tall order. It means risking the lives of one’s own combatants and not intentionally killing noncombatants. Just war means that we do not threaten to kill 5,000 civilians as revenge for the number of our citizens murdered. We put soldiers into combat rather than unleash terrorists.

Many of the rules of just war have been incorporated in various international agreements. During and after a conflict we assess the conduct of soldiers. Did they rape and pillage? Did they operate under rules of engagement? Did they make every attempt to limit civilian casualties?

The course charted thus far by the U.S. has been complex, nuanced, restrained. The use of military force is one part of an overall strategy. The president has repeatedly said that the U.S. response is not aimed at a nation or a way of life, but at those who drag their own people into harm’s way, defame their religion, and perpetrate an ideology that has as its end the deaths of innocent people.

If it abides by just war constraints, the U.S. will put its combatants in harm’s way to punish and interdict those who have put our noncombatants in harm’s way. This is responsible action.


Authority And Intention

by James Turner Johnson

This question of "right authority" in the just war tradition seems to me especially important in considering the phenomenon of terrorism. In recent years, most discussions of just war have focused first on the issue of "just cause." This is true, for example in the work of the U.S. Catholic bishops during the 1950s and 1990s as they considered nuclear war. It was true of my own thinking in this period. The reason for this emphasis, I think, was that the notion of "right authority" seemed relatively clear: the right authority was the nation state as recognized by other nation states.

But as Augustine and his medieval and early modern successors knew well, the question of "proper authority" remains a central issue in thinking about a just war, for it is the proper authority -- the government or the leaders -- that has the responsibility of serving the public good. Those who have this authority and responsibility must first determine whether the use of force would satisfy the primary moral requirements of just cause and right intention and the purpose of restoring peace. They then must use prudential reasoning to decide whether even a justified use of force would produce more good than harm, would have a reasonable hope of success, and would be the only course likely to be effective in achieving the justified ends.

In this respect, we need to think harder about what we mean by "right intention." In recent debate, it has usually meant something like "an intention in line with a just cause." But Augustine had something different in mind. When he gives examples of wrong intentions, he mentions things like the lust to dominate, the lust for power, the lust for cruel revenge -- these are the kinds of intentions or mind-sets that we don’t want to have when thinking about restoring justice. But these are precisely the kind of intentions that animated the terrorist attacks of September 11.

As we talk about the just war tradition that developed in the West, we should recognize that it overlaps in important ways with the jihad tradition. The jihad tradition also requires that force be used by the right authority. Historically, for the Muslim community to act, the leader of that community -- the caliph for the Sunnis, the imam for the Shi’ites -- had to authorize the action. Individuals had a responsibility to respond to an attack on Islamic society, but there were stringent restraints on such action. In this context, Osama bin Laden’s issuing of a fatwa (or edict) against the West in 1998 and styling himself a sheikh went against the tradition of the defensive jihad.

The jihad tradition also sets limits on whom one may fight against in a just war. A number of traditions or hadiths associated with Muhammad prohibit killing women and children. Some of these traditions also rule out killing the aged, the infirm and the mentally incompetent. These are exactly the kinds of discriminations we find in the just war tradition and in contemporary international law.

So there is no fundamental clash of cultures here. From both the standpoint of Islam and the standpoint of the just war tradition in the West, the attacks of September 11 were evil and unjust, and there is a justified reason for authorities to respond to them on behalf of the public good.