Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Problem with Disproportionate Responses

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:

It exemplified for me a current right-wing meme, an attack on the common critique that Israel's response is "disproportionate".

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.))


Stephen said...

If the Police shoot and kill the hostage then yes, the robber is guilty of murder (as well as robbery). But it is also the case that the police officer who shot will be, rightly, grilled as to whether his or her action was truly necessary, whether they should have waited, etc.

If the Police respond to this situation by shooting a bazooka gun, blowing up the bank as well as the office building next to it, killing scores of innocent people, well then, no one will really care that in some sense it is the robber's "fault". The police would have done something grossly immoral; that they were responding to a crime would not be an excuse.

This is why Police officers have to be concerned about "excessive force". Particularly if they kill far more civilians than the robber did.

Anonymous said...

Israel, Gaza, and the Double Standard by Lanny J. Davis
First, a few indisputable and documented facts that demonstrate how insidiously the double standard against Israel operated during and in the aftermath of the Gazan intervention:
Israel withdrew from all its military forces from Gaza in 2005 and, since that withdrawal, Hamas launched more than 8,000 rockets intentionally aimed at civilians in Southern Israel. Thus, every launched rocket aimed at civilians is a war crime. Yet few, if any, human rights groups or U.N. leaders since the Gaza intervention have called for Hamas to be tried for war crimes.

Hamas used civilians and civilian locations in Gaza — schools, hospitals, and residential complexes — as shields behind which they launched their terrorist rockets. That, too, is indisputably a war crime. Hezbollah did the same thing from Lebanon. Yet again, there is only silence about Hamas and Hezbollah being prosecuted for war crimes.

Iran funds and supplies terrorist weapons to both Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet nations of Western Europe, many of which were the locations of recent street protests calling for prosecution of Israel for war crimes, have been active in trade and commerce with Iran, and seem strangely silent about criticizing Iran's funding of Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism.

It is a documented fact that Israeli Defense Forces continually tried to prevent civilian casualties while still defending themselves from these terrorist attacks. They sent tens of thousands of text messages and cellular phone calls to Gazans — to warn civilians to evacuate areas used by Hamas for launching rockets; they called off attacks when they saw Hamas pushing women and children up front as shields; and they used targeted weapons and "smart" bombs to avoid civilian casualties as best as they could. Yet when the IDF's weapons unintentionally caused civilian deaths, leaders of the United Nations and "human rights" groups call for war crimes investigations. And there are few, if any, counter voices challenging the United Nations at least to be even-handed and demand war crimes investigations of Hamas and Hezbollah. (including the Secretary General, who has not been hesitant to criticize Israel but strangely silent about Hamas).
Then there is the accusation that Israel committed war crimes by using "excessive" force and causing "disproportionate" civilian deaths compared to the number of Israelis who died due to Hamas rockets.

What would have been the reaction of most Americans (or most of the civilized world, for that matter) if someone had made the charge that the U.S. and its military forces were guilty of war crimes after Sept. 11, 2001, because, while bombing Al Qaeda and the Taliban government harboring them in Afghanistan, "excessive" numbers of civilians were tragically but inadvertently killed — because the number killed exceeded the 3,000 people who died on 9/11?

I suggest the reaction would have been, universally, "that is nuts."

Yet where is that universal reaction when the same charge of "excessive" or "disproportional" force is made against Israel in defending itself against Hamas and civilian deaths are unintentional too? Only silence, it seems.

The double standard again.

When the Israeli Defense Forces returned Hamas rocket fire launched in close proximity to an U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school compound in Jibalya, some IDF shells mistakenly landed within the compound and tragically killed and wounded innocent civilians and children. The Israeli government expressed sorrow and grief for that accident and initiated an investigation into what happened and why.

But an UNRWA spokesperson named Christopher Gunness was widely quoted in leading U.S. media calling for an investigation of Israel for committing possible war crimes.

Mr. Gunness actually insisted — I am not making this up — that there is an important distinction between Hamas fighters launching terrorist rockets from just within the compound, which could not be confirmed, vs. launching such rockets from just outside of the compound, which was widely confirmed as true. Yet because Hamas was launching just outside the fence, Mr. Gunness did not think it necessary to call for an investigation of Hamas for committing war crimes.

That's more than a double standard. It is gross hypocrisy — supported by hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars in a non-transparent, largely unaccountable U.N. agency. Legislation is being considered in the Congress to bring more transparency and accountability for UNRWA. That is long overdue.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who may be the next prime minister of Israel, summarized the situation up very well when he told the Wall Street Journal over the weekend:

"We grieve every child, for every innocent civilian that's killed either on our side or on the Palestinian side. The terrorists celebrate such suffering, on our side because the openly say they want to kill us, all of us, and on the Palestinian side because it helps them foster this false symmetry, which is contrary to common decency and international law."

Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Mitchell will need to devote much attention and effort and apply all their skills and energy to bring about peace in the Middle East. But if they are to have any chance at all, the world's leaders must abandon the double standard and apply a single standard of justice and fair play to Israel as they would want applied to themselves and other civilized nations.

Only then will those committed to peace in the Middle East have a chance to isolate the terrorists who who celebrate death, not life; who intentionally kill innocent civilians; and those in Teheran who fund and supply them.
This article appeared in Mr. Davis's weekly column, "Purple Nation," on Monday, Jan. 26, 2009