A Just War and the Fight Against Terrorism

Military Action Is Acceptable, Within Limits

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NEW YORK, SEPT. 22, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have brought home how fragile peace is -- and how terrible the tragedy when innocent lives are lost.



One consequence is the strength of public opinion in the United States, and other countries, in favor of military action to combat the threat posed by terrorism. Would this be morally justified?

Traditional Church teaching on the concept of a just war divided judgment into two areas: when it is justified to use force, "jus ad bellum"; and the principles guiding the use of force, "jus in bello."

For a war to be justifiable, a number of criteria need to be satisfied: that there be a just cause; that the action be initiated by a legitimate authority; that it be guided by the right intention; that the results of any action not produce more evil than the good sought; that it is the last resort; that there is a reasonable chance of success; that the eventual outcome be the establishment of peace.

Once a proposed military action has met these requirements there are also limits on what is legitimate in the resulting action. There should be a proportionality in the means used, avoiding force that is in excess of that needed to achieve the ends of the conflict. Care must also be taken to avoid damage or death to innocent parties.

This last stipulation has acquired more force in recent times given the experience of massive destruction caused by the wars of the 20th century. Additionally, the threat of weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical and biological -- has led to greater reluctance on the part of the Church to countenance the use of force.

For example, John XXIII in the 1963 encyclical "Pacem in Terris," Nos. 126-9, emphasized negotiations instead of the use of force. The threat of nuclear arms motivated the Pope to declare, "It is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated."

The Second Vatican Council´s document "The Church in the Modern World" also highlighted the destructive nature of modern warfare, Nos. 79-80. It also warned about the use of terrorism as a new method used to wage conflicts. However, while encouraging the peaceful negotiation of conflicts, Vatican II did not rule out the use of armed force: "As long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful defense, once all peace efforts have failed."

The council went on to condemn total warfare that involves the wholesale destruction of cities and civilian centers, judging it to be "a crime against God and man."

In summarizing the teaching of the Church on the use of force, the Catechism, in No. 2309, notes that the power of modern armaments weighs heavily in determining if the use of force produces more evils and disorders than the evil to be eliminated. It also condemns the indiscriminate use of force and the validity of the moral law during a conflict.

But the Catechism also says of those who serve in the armed forces: "If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace," No. 2310.

Can war be justified?

Some argue that the destructiveness of modern warfare, which has led to the reluctance of recent Church teaching to endorse the use of force, implies that there is an inherent presumption against war. According to this point of view it is very difficult to justify any type of armed action to resolve problems.

However, others, such as American scholar James Turner Johnson, author of several works on just-war theory, argue that even if some modern Church teaching on war does include a presumption against war, this is a result of a prudential judgment. Johnson considers that by its nature a judgment of this type is contingent on the particular circumstances and therefore resorting to force cannot be ruled out categorically. So while modern popes have emphasized the importance of a peaceful resolution of injustices, this does not mean that military action can never be justified.

In fact, John Paul II, in his 1982 message for the World Day of Peace, stated that "Christians, even as they strive to resist and prevent every form of warfare, have no hesitation in recalling that in the name of an elementary requirement of justice, people have a right and even a duty to protect their existence and freedom by proportionate means against an unjust aggressor," No. 12.

How to respond to terrorism

There can be no doubt as to the immorality of terrorist actions. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1986 "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation," No. 79, stated, "One can never approve -- whether perpetrated by established power or insurgents -- crimes such as reprisals against the general population, torture or methods of terrorism."

In the general audience held the day after the attacks in the United States, John Paul II declared: "In the face of such unspeakable horror we cannot but be deeply disturbed. I add my voice to all the voices raised in these hours to express indignant condemnation, and I strongly reiterate that the ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity´s problems."

Last Sunday, however, the Pope also exhorted the United States "not to give in to the temptation of hatred and violence" in the wake of the terrorist attacks and he appealed to "the beloved American people" to respond with "justice."

Fighting with "justice" the threat posed by terrorism is not an easy task. Identifying and eliminating terrorists is very different from a conventional military action. Not the least of problems is finding Osama bin Laden and his followers in the midst of Afghanistan.

Many analysts stress the difficulty of any large-scale military action in Afghanistan and point out that after a long conflict the Russian army was forced to retreat. Moreover, the problem arises of how to proceed without harming the civilian population, already the victim of decades of warfare and dependent on international food aid that is now in danger of being cut off due to the imminent threat of conflict.

And even if bin Laden were to be caught or killed, there is no guarantee that this would put an end to matters. By all accounts his organization has a very loose cell-like structure and would continue to function even without his direction.

Experience with extremist groups in Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain show how difficult it is to stamp out terrorism. Moreover, other countries hostile to the West in the Middle East could easily take the place of Afghanistan in offering refuge to terrorist groups intent on continuing hostilities.

All signs indicate that the battle against terrorism won´t be won easily -- or soon.