Just Indefensible There is such a thing as just war, but terrorism isn’t it
Christians have thought and written deeply and extensively about just war since the beginning of the Christian era. Historically there have been two major positions.
Pacifism would seem to have been the first view of the Christian churches during the first centuries. It is a view that has had its supporters right up to our own day, both inside and outside the churches. It has also always been the minority view, which in itself does not make it wrong.
The just war theory from the time of Augustine has always enjoyed the greater following among Christians. However, with the invention of nuclear weapons during the cold war between the West and the USSR the just war theory suffered a set-back, for the simple reason that in a nuclear war there is no way in which justice can be contained.
However, with the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union all that changed. Since then there has been an easing of nuclear tensions. The most recent change was September 11, 2001. This is the new terrorism, especially in its militant form as represented by movements like Jemaah Islamiah and Al Qaeda, which some have called World War III.
Terrorism demands a response and just war theory provides the moral framework and conscientious response that Christians and others need.
In the Old Testament, the Lord the God of Israel throughout the nation’s history encouraged Israel to fight against her neighbours, the pagan nations surrounding her both inside and outside the land of promise. In these campaigns the Lord frequently gave victory to Israel by raising up military leaders and made them successful.
These wars were often defensive in response to the attacks of traditional enemies like the Philistines who wanted to enslave the Hebrews. Sometimes they were offensive wars of expansion as the Lord led them and gave them success in conquering and holding the land.
While there is nothing similar in the New Testament — largely because the church takes the place of Israel and the church is an international body with a spiritual mission to the nations — it would be wrong to think that the New Testament has nothing to say on this issue.
Perhaps the closest we come is Paul’s teaching about the state authorities being servants of God to oppose evil and to defend the good in society (Rom. 13:1-8). To carry out this God-given mandate the civil authorities are equipped with a sword that certainly stands for force of some kind.
Not only did Augustine and later writers see the need to spell out the stringent conditions under which war might justly be opened, but they also lay down criteria for conducting war once it has begun. The principal criteria are the following, first for going to war, then for waging it.
- You go to war only for a just cause such as the defence of your motherland or the preservation of civilisation. Your reasons are open to inspection and debate.
- You go to war as a last resort when all other avenues to peace have been tried but failed. Just war is opposed to all war-mongering.
- You go to war for the right reasons — not, for example, to inflict revenge or because of nationalistic ambitions.
- You go to war only under the authority of lawful governments and not as private individuals or protest groups.
- You go to war because you believe that war will achieve more good in the long-term than not going to war. This means establishing peace and restoring a social order of law and justice for all.
These are some of the leading criteria for going to war. Now the criteria for conducting the war:
- You differentiate civilians from military personnel, doing everything possible not to harm civilians. This is the principle of discrimination.
- You use proportionate force by not engaging in overkill, for example, wiping out the enemy forces when a short engagement will achieve the same end. This is the principle of proportionality.
- You treat enemy soldiers humanely as prisoners of war, not engaging in torture or brutality. This is the principle of humaneness.
- You deal honestly and justly with breaches of military discipline or war crimes, even among your own soldiers.
- You work for a just peace and generous peace by aiming to restore law and order, even dignity, to your defeated enemy.
When we test the case of terrorism by these criteria we come up with the following sort of questions and answers. Going to war:
- Is the war against terrorism just? Terrorism is a threat to world peace and to much that is noble and decent in civilisation. Its tactics are brutal and cowardly.
- Is the war against terrorism a last resort? Terrorism is not open to peace negotiations and many would object to negotiating with terrorists on principle.
- Is the war against terrorism being conducted from right motives and with right intentions? After September 11 strong emotions were aroused against those responsible. This had a lot to do with the new American response in pursuing the war in Afghanistan, for example.
- Is the war against terrorism being conducted by lawful authorities? The war against terrorism has been supported by many countries through their governments and lawfully appointed leaders across the world.
- Is the war against terrorism an expansionist war of Western hegemony in the world or aimed at the greater good of world peace? It is not easy to answer this question since a mixture of motives probably go into this war.
Ideally we ought to answer all five questions in the affirmative but enough has been said to establish the war against terrorism as a new just war that Christians can approve and support. But what about the methods being used to prosecute this war? This leads to another set of questions and answers.
- Are terrorists and their supporters being carefully targeted and innocent family members, for example, not being discriminated against? People are becoming aware of the difference, for all practical purposes, between more moderate and more extreme Muslims.
- Are proportionate military means being used against terrorists? Since terrorists will usually fight to the death, many of them are being killed.
- Are captured terrorists being treated humanely? As far as we know captured terrorists are being treated responsibly, although there may be exceptions.
- Are war crimes and atrocities being brought to trial? This has taken place in Indonesia and Singapore, for example, after the Bali bombings.
- Are there larger goals in place for a post-terrorist world? Countries are cooperating to rid the world of terrorists.
Once again we may argue that the answers to these questions about the ways in which the war against terrorism is being waged generally justify this war.
We all know how common it is for both sides in a conflict to claim that theirs is the side of justice, even claiming God’s blessing and approval of their belligerence (for example, World War I). So let us, for the sake of the argument, take the view that the terrorists have a righteous cause, something that most of them do actually believe. Can they sustain their belief in terrorism as a just war?
This requires that we apply the same criteria to their defence in conducting this war and in their methods in doing so. Four examples are enough.
- Are terrorists rightly motivated? Terrorists transgress right motives because they are waging war out of hate and revenge, hoping to inflict as much damage and pain as possible on their enemies. Those who planned the September 11 massacre were apparently delighted at the success of the operation. Those who executed the Bali bombings are unrepentant and have no sympathy for the bereaved families.
- Are the terrorists acting by lawful authority? The terrorists do not act under the auspices of governments by legal authority but as private individuals who are conducting their own private war of terror on the perceived enemies of Islam.
- Do the terrorists observe the principle of proportionality? Terrorists transgress the principle of proportionality in their excessive measures against westerners and their targets.
- Do terrorists avoid civilian populations? Terrorists transgress the principle of discrimination by endangering the lives of non-combatants in their terrorist bombings and mass killings. They deliberately choose ‘soft-targets’ or civilian centres.
So the application of even these four criteria for just war fails in the case of terrorism and its methods. They have no reasonable or ethical justification for their campaign of terror against Western countries or governments that are friendly towards them. Theirs is a mindless, brutal campaign conducted out of twisted motives and open to investigation by international bodies for crimes against humanity.
We who belong to the Western nations must ask ourselves about injustice and wickedness in our own societies before condemning outright the acts of terrorists. Terrorism is a wake-up call to western countries to repent of their own evils and be right in God’s sight. In the war against terror there is no place for self-righteousness.
We must be careful that in our zeal to track down the terrorists and avenge the death of many innocent people, we do not ourselves become brutalised and vindictive. Even terrorists have natural human rights, such as fair trial and protection from vigilante justice. Amnesty International, for example, has highlighted the plight of those terrorists who are shut up in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without being charged or put on trial.