Someone can always ask, "What is this morality of yours?" That is a more radical question, however, than the questioner may realize, for it excludes him not only from the comfortable world of moral agreement, but also from the wider world of agreement and disagreement, justification and criticism. The moral world of war is shared not because we arrive at the same conclusions as to whose fight is just and whose unjust, but because we acknowledge the same difficulties on the way to our conclusions, face the same problems, talk the same language. It's not easy to opt out, and only the wicked and the simple make the attempt.
-- Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xiv-xv
I came across the following graphic on the site of an Israeli blogger the other day:
These attacks are, I think, morally repulsive -- or rather, they are to the degree that the attackers really understand what they are saying (including, necessarily, what the concept that they are ridiculing actually means). I suspect that for the most part they don't.
I bet that the thought is something like this: "disproportionate"? How silly. How sissy. Attacks shouldn't be "proportionate"; fuck that Marquis of Queensbury stuff. The important thing is to win. After all, the terrorists aren't going to limit their attacks to "proportionate" attacks, are they?
And, of course, they're not. But that's because they're terrorists. It is, in some ways, a big part of what makes them terrorists.
Now, the "war on terror" is a "war" roughly in the sense that the wars on poverty and drugs were. (Are? Are we still fighting a war on drugs, anyway? Or poverty?) It's a metaphor. Now the parallel isn't exact, for two reasons: first, the war on terror does include two actual wars the U.S. is currently involved in -- Afghanistan, which was a fairly reasonable response to the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq, which had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks except insofar as the latter were used to sell it to the public. (Some people might call Israel's current war on Lebanon, and even its current war on Gaza, part of the war on terror, too.) The other reason is that it's different from other metaphorical wars is that other Presidents never tried to claim war-powers -- indeed, more expansive war-powers than any previous Presidents had ever claimed -- on the basis of the wars on drugs or poverty. But that's another issue.
Nevertheless, let's go with the "war on terror" phrase for a moment. One thing that makes it different than other wars -- indeed, one of the main things which makes it a metaphorical rather than actual war -- is that "terror" isn't the sort of thing one might normally wage war on (states, non-state militias, guerrilla groups, etc.). It's a tactic in war -- an illegitimate, illegal, and grossly immoral tactic, but nevertheless a tactic. (What the U.S. should have done, post 9/11, is to declare war on Al Queada.) Nevertheless, like poverty*, most people would agree that terrorism is wrong, and since we're now supposedly waging war against it, we perhaps should understand why it's wrong.
Terrorism is wrong, first of all, not because of the aims it seeks. Terrorists can do evil for good ends or evil ends or anywhere-in-between ends. Al Queada, of course, is using it for ends which are about as foul as one can get. Hamas, however, is more of a mixed bag. To the extent that they are using terror to try to destroy Israel or impose sharia, they are using immoral means to serve an immoral end. But to the extent that they are using terror to try to free the territories from occupation, they are using immoral means to serve a moral end. (I don't want to get into an argument here about where the balance lies between those two.) Using terror casts one's ends into disrepute, of course, even aside from being a moral crime; but it does not make the end automatically wrong that people use immoral means for fighting it.
So terrorism is wrong because it is an immoral tactic. Aside from its ends, what's wrong about it?
It's murder. Simple as that.
Well, but wait. Isn't all war murder?
No. "Murder" is generally held to be a particular type of killing. Some killing -- most notably, killing in self-defense -- is not murder.
So war is not murder when it is in self-defense -- on a larger scale, but self-defense nonetheless.
The entire edifice known as just war theory -- whose most articulate and interesting contemporary proponent, in my mind (and many other's, too), is Michael Walzer, but which is centuries old -- is essentially devoted to working out the extraordinarily complicated consequences of that quite simple idea.
Just war theory divides into two questions, along the lines I was just discussing -- just aims (jus ad bellum) and just tactics (jus in bello). "Proportionality" is a concern of both; but for the moment let's focus on the issue to which "terror" is related, namely, the importance of proportionality in tactics. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Soldiers may only use force proportional to the end they seek. They must restrain their force to that amount appropriate to achieving their aim or target."
In other words, the problem of proportionality comes not when soldiers do what is necessary to win -- for (assuming their actions abide by the other rules of war, and that the cause is just in the first place) that is a moral thing to do. It has nothing to do with being nice. It has to do with not doing more killing than you have to.
There are two sides to the "than you have to" question. One is if the whole army goes off and does more than is necessary -- for example, not only repulses an invasion and secures its future security (both allowable under the rules of jus ad bellum), but takes over more of the country as spoils; that's the issue of proportionality in war aims. And here the issue's pretty simple (in theory, although like all these issues it can fiendishly difficult to parse in practice): if you continue to fight once you've secured yourself from aggression, or fight beyond what you need to to do that, then you become the aggressor.
The other side is that in any individual goal, you only can use as much force as needed. Again, the theory here is simple: if you use more force than needed, then you are killing people for no good reason. (Or, at best, for insufficient reason -- which is, it should hardly need to be said (although it does) insufficient to justify killing someone.) You are, in other words, a murderer.
Now, if people were arguing that Israel's response was proportionate, it'd be a complicated question. I think they'd be wrong, but these applications can be, as I mentioned, fiendishly difficult to work out in practice.
But that's not what some people are saying. They're saying why the fuck should we care about proportionality? . And the answer to that is simple. It's because when you cash it out, "disproportionate response" boils down to "aggression". In other words, to murder.
Now, terrorists are terrorists largely because they target civilians (and not in those specific cases which -- fiendishly difficult! fiendishly difficult! -- are allowable, e.g. when the civilians are working in a munitions plant). But terror can also arise out of disproportionate attacks.
If Israel is -- as, given many of the news reports, it damn well seems to be -- simply attacking civilians, whether directly or indirectly, by attacking life-support systems like sources of food, water, power, transport, etc. -- then it is simply guilty of war crimes for targeting civilians. But Israel would probably reply to this: we are simply targeting terrorists; any civilian casualties are, in the contemporary euphemism, "collateral damage".
But that's only true up to a point.
If a known combatant is coming out of his house, gun in hand, and you shoot him, then you haven't committed murder. But if you blow up him and his house with it, then you probably have. Their might be exigencies of war which would justify it. But it'd be a tough case to make.
In self-defense, it's not enough to be repulsing an attacker. If someone comes up to mug you, and you fire a machine gun on full automatic and kill everyone in a packed train car standing behind the would-be mugger, it's not enough to plead self-defense. You have a responsibility to other lives, too -- just as your mugger does, which is what justified the self-defense in the first place.
It's not grounds to blow up a village that you think that maybe there's a terrorist somewhere in a village. That's like Hamas blowing up a civilian bus because maybe a soldier, who maybe is patrolling the occupied territories, is riding it.
Targeting civilians is a terrible war crime. But it's not the only war crime. Targeting military targets so sloppily that you end up wantonly killing civilians -- whether because you go on yeah-well-maybe style intelligence, and therefore don't really know who you're aiming at; or because those roads and airports might transport weapons, or because you use such massive ordinance that you end up killing far more civilians than is (yes) proportionate to whatever military end you have in mind -- that's a war crime, too. And for much the same reason. It's killing that goes beyond any legitimate need for self-defense.
Yeah, terrorists don't care about proportionality. And states behaving in an evil fashion don't either. But we had damn well better. Because to be a fan of disproportionate response is, in the end, to be a fan of terrorism.
* "Ha! You didn't say drugs! You're pro-drugs!" Well, no, personally I'm not. But I am certainly against the so-called war on drugs; and I also don't think that the sentence I wrote would have been accurate if I put the word "drug" in instead of, or in addition to, "poverty". (It may not have been totally accurate with poverty, but that most people will at least pay lip service to disliking. (Most.))