Monday, February 9, 2009

Terrorism, Just War Theory, and the Proportionality Principle

This post started as a collection of thoughts I had on the Israeli invasion of Gaza, back in December. I've expanded it and made it a little clearer for the purposes of the blog - but that's why I start by talking about Hamas and Israel.

Proportionality and Gaza

The proportionality principle roughly holds that a "just war" must keep its number of casualties proportional to the magnitude of the threat that the war is meant to address. One definition of this states: "The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms."

This proportionality principle is obviously at the front of everyone's mind when they think of the conflict in the Gaza Strip in late December and early January. Every night the Palestinian casualties - civilian or otherwise - grew higher and higher, seemingly exponentially. The Israeli casualties, while increasing, were only creeping up with each day of combat. I have to admit that even though I felt that the Israeli action was fully justified, I was deeply troubled by the increasingly disproportionate body counts. A lively exchange with a good friend from high school only drove the point home for me that whatever we think of the justice of a particular military offensive, we cannot simply ignore the body count. This friend posted an article that grabbed my attention, especially because of this very striking statement by the author:

"Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash".

It is not a trivial concern. Certainly it isn't a trivial concern for intelligent, caring American onlookers - as is amply demonstrated by me and my friend. But I also think it is evident that the concern is not trivial for the Israelis, who have made efforts - at least in most cases - to warn civilians before military strikes.

But I wonder how our understanding of the proportionality principle should change when we consider a war on terrorists. If proportionality is to be determined by weighing the anticipated benefits against the "expected evils or harms", how do we assess the "expected evils or harms" of terrorism?

We are left to balance "anticipations" against "expectations" - two very fuzzy things which leave any assessment of symmetry in warfare in even fuzzier territory. If we know Hamas is receiving missiles from Iran, and we know Iran is seeking the development of nuclear warheads, is the prospect of nuclear warheads in the hands of Hamas an "expected evil or harm"? If it is justified as an "expected evil", then a harsh crackdown on Hamas in an effort to destroy that network by Israel, with considerable civilian casualties, seems to me to be justified. Yes, the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties is great, but the "expected evil" of thousands of Israelis dying in a potential nuclear strike is far greater. The justification game becomes a game of providing the best argument for the "anticipations" and "expectations" that you're peddling.

However, if the "anticipated benefit" and the "expected evil" must only be restricted to the immediate casualties inflicted by Hamas, clearly the current conflict is "disproportionate". I don't think there can be any doubting that. The question is - what is the "expected evil" that we should be weighing military action against when we contemplate the proportionality principle?

Proportionality and Terrorism

I would argue that the question becomes especially challenging when we consider the problem of terrorism. The whole point of terrorism is to exacerbate fears and expectations of evil and harm. That's what al Qaeda wants to inflict on us - not necessarily greater actual harm (although they would love to do that too), but the expectation of far greater harm. That's what Hamas wants to inflict on Israel as well. It's what Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas leader, meant when he said that Israel would face a "black destiny" as a consequence of invasion. What did he mean, exactly? The uncertainty is the object of the statement. It is the intention of terrorism.

So should the "expected evil and harm" that we weigh the cost of war against under the proportionality principle be the harm that we have already endured (the couple thousand dead on Sept. 11th; the handful dead by Hamas missile attacks), or should the "expected evil and harm" be the evil and harm that we can envision happening? And if it is the evil and harm we can envision happening at the hands of terrorists, it seems to me that the nature of terrorism itself necessary escalates the war against terrorism. If the business of terrorism is exacerbating "expected evil and harm", even when actual evil and harm may be minimal, then the business of terrorism necessarily leads to a devastating response under just war theory.

Ultimately, though, the strength of an argument for military response is only as convincing as the argument for the "expected evil and harm" is. Hamas could obtain a nuclear device from Iran, but in all likelihood they won't. Iran is happy to send money and explosives to suicide bombers, but I'm guessing they'd distribute technology like nuclear weaponry with a little more discernment. So that "expected evil and harm" isn't very convincing. But expectations of more traditional, but nevertheless horrific Hamas terrorist attacks if nothing else is done is certainly not an unconvincing argument.

Iraq figures into this as well. The Bush administration tried to make a case of exceedingly high "expected evil" that justified a massive military undertaking. I didn't buy it, and neither did a lot of other people. Whatever benefits may have accrued to the Iraqi people from ridding themselves of a dictator, the "expected evils" that were trumpeted in 2003 - WMD's - didn't really pan out.

But I think the way we use the proportionality principle of just war theory to approach Iraq (and Iran, for that matter) is fundamentally and qualitatively different from the way it is used to approach terrorism. Iraq and Iran, unsavory as they are, have always tried to downplay the threat they pose to the West. Yes, they do their fair share of belly-aching and name-calling - but they don't dare threaten the spectacular attacks that terrorist groups do. Why? Because they are nation-states. They rely on good relations with the outside world. They are members of the United Nations. They have to be careful how they resist the West.

Terrorist organizations operate differently, and their primary purpose is to terrify their enemies - to convince them that all hope is lost, and incredible violence and destruction is just lurking around the corner. I think this represents a fundamental snag in a Just War Theory that has otherwise served us reasonably well in prosecuting conventional warfare. The proportionality principle, it seems to me, justifies substantial asymmetric warfare against terrorism. Honestly, I'm still personally rather convinced. I have no problems with a long, merciless war against al Qaeda. But this blind spot in Just War Theory still bothers me. I wonder if I'm misdiagnosing the implications of the proportionality principle for terrorism, or if I'm correctly diagnosing it and perhaps we need a new standard for determining whether a war is just.

What are people's thoughts on this? I don't know if this is a legitimate way to look at the problem or not. I don't even know if just war theory is something we should feel obligated to. Perhaps it's just a medieval relic.

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