"Pre-emptive Military Action Against Terrorists Is Morally
WASHINGTON, D.C., 13 OCT. 2001 (ZENIT).
Papal biographer George Weigel spent part of his career studying
Catholic international relations theory, the just-war tradition and the
pursuit of peace in its classic Catholic sense of "public
Here, ZENIT publishes an article by the author of "Witness to
Hope" on just-war theory, written in light of the Sept. 11 attacks
on the United States. Following that, ZENIT publishes an exclusive
interview with Weigel.
* * *
GETTING "JUST-WAR" STRAIGHT
Catholic commentary on the grave moral issues involved in responding to
the attack on the United States on September 11, and in taking effective
measures to rid the world of terrorism and its capacity for mass violence,
has been burdened by a shift in just-war thinking. The shift began decades
ago, but its full import is only now coming into clear focus.
It's important, at the outset, to understand what the just-war tradition
is, and isn't. The just-war tradition is not an algebra that provides
custom-made, clear-cut answers under all circumstances. Rather, it is a
kind of ethical calculus, in which moral reasoning and rigorous empirical
analysis are meant to work together, in order to provide guidance to
public authorities on whom the responsibilities of decision-making fall.
From its beginnings in St. Augustine, just-war thinking has been based on
the presumption—better, the classic moral judgment—that
rightly-constituted public authorities have the moral duty to pursue
justice—even at risk to themselves and those for whom they are
responsible. That is why, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas discussed just
war under the broader subject of the meaning of "charity," and
why the eminent Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey argued that the just-war
tradition is an attempt to think through the public meaning of the
commandment of love-of-neighbor. In today's international context,
"justice" includes the defense of freedom (especially religious
freedom), and the defense of a minimum of order in international affairs.
For these are the crucial components of the peace that is possible in a
This presumption—that the pursuit of justice is a moral obligation of
statecraft—shapes the first set of moral criteria in the just-war
tradition, which scholars call the "ius ad bellum" or
"war-decision law:" Is the cause a just one? Will the war be
conducted by a responsible public authority? Is there a "right
intention" (which, among other things, precludes acts of vengeance or
reprisal)? Is the contemplated action "proportionate:" is it
appropriate to the goal (or just cause); is the good to be accomplished
likely to be greater than the evil that would be suffered if nothing were
done, or if the use of armed force were avoided for the sake of other
types of measures? Have other remedies been tried and found wanting or are
other remedies prima facie unlikely to be effective? Is there a reasonable
chance of success?
It is only when these prior moral questions have been answered that the
second set of just-war criteria—what scholars call the "ius in
bello" or "war-conduct law"—come into play, logically.
The positive answers to the first set of questions, the
"war-decision" questions, create the moral framework for
addressing the two great "war-conduct" issues:
"proportionality," which requires the use of no more force than
necessary to vindicate the just cause; and "discrimination," or
what we today call "non-combatant immunity."
Under the moral pressures created by the threat of nuclear war, Catholic
attention focused almost exclusively on "war-conduct" questions
in the decades after World War II. This, in turn, led to what can only be
described as an inversion of the just-war tradition: the claim, frequently
encountered in both official and scholarly Catholic commentary today, that
the just-war tradition "begins with a presumption against
It does not. It did not begin with such a presumption historically, and it
cannot begin with such a presumption theologically. For as one of
America's most distinguished just-war theorists, James Turner Johnson has
put it, to do this—to effectively reduce the tradition to
"war-conduct" questions—is to put virtually the entire weight
of the tradition on what are inevitably contingent judgments. This error,
in turn, distorts our moral and political vision, as it did when it led
many Catholic thinkers to conclude, in the 1980s, that nuclear weapons,
not communist regimes, were the primary threat to peace—a conclusion
falsified by history in 1989.
That just-war fighting must observe the moral principle of non-combatant
immunity goes without saying. That this is the place to begin the moral
analysis is theologically muddled and unlikely to lead to wise statecraft.
If "war-conduct" judgments drive the analysis, the moral
foundations are knocked out from under the entire edifice.
* * *
Exclusive ZENIT interview with George Weigel
ZENIT: To what extent is it valid to apply the just-war principles
to a fight against terrorism? There are a number of significant
differences compared to a war between states: a foe that blends in with
the civilian population, no army-to-army fight, a drawn-out struggle over
years conducted mainly away from the battlefield, etc.
Weigel: The just-war tradition is a way of thinking rooted in
Christian moral realism. Because of that, thinking through the prism of
the just-war tradition about world politics and the pursuit of justice,
order and freedom (the components of the peace that is possible in this
world) should help us see things more clearly.
For example: Thinking in the categories of the just-war tradition should
help us see that dealing with what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York
and Washington cannot be properly understood by analogy to the criminal
justice system. The perpetrators of these acts of mass murder understood
themselves to be involved in a war—against the United States and, more
broadly, the West. Had that fourth plane destroyed the White House or the
U.S. Capitol, it would have been unmistakably clear that these attacks
were aimed at the destruction of the United States government—just as
the previous attacks on the Khobar Barracks in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole,
and the U.S. embassies in East Africa were attacks on the United States,
every bit as much as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
That the adversary is not an army in the conventional sense does not
change the reality of the situation. Guerrilla warfare involves, as you
say, a foe that deliberately blends in with the civilian population, no
army-to-army fight, a long struggle, etc.; no one suggests that guerrilla
warfare is anything other than warfare.
It is true that the just-war tradition is accustomed to thinking of states
as the only "unit-of-count" in world politics. The new situation
demands a development of the just-war tradition, as many of us have been
arguing for over a decade. As a method of moral reasoning about politics,
the just-war tradition emerged long before the state system; the tradition
developed to deal with the realities of a world in which states were the
primary actors, and now it must develop to help us think through our moral
obligations in a world in which non-state actors, like terrorist
organizations and networks (often allied with states), are crucial, and
intentionally lethal, actors.
2. How can we apply the principle of a proportionate response to
terrorism, and avoid falling into seeking vengeance, given the horrific
nature of the targeting of civilians?
Weigel: The just-war tradition begins with the assumption—better,
the classic moral judgment—that rightly constituted public authorities
have the moral obligation to pursue justice, order and freedom as the
components of peace, even when doing so requires public authorities to put
their own lives at risk. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas locates his
discussion of "bellum iustum" within his broader analysis of
So the first questions the tradition asks us to answer are what scholars
call "ad bellum" questions or "war-decision"
questions: Is the cause just? Will the use of military force be authorized
and controlled by a legitimate public authority? Is that authority
operating with a "right intention" (i.e., not raw revenge, but
the restoration of justice and order and the defense of freedom)? Is there
a reasonable chance of success? Will the good that may come out of the use
of military force outweigh the evil that would result if nothing were
done? Have other means of resolving the conflict been tried and found
wanting, or are such other means simply unavailable?
Only when these questions are answered does the just-war tradition turn to
"in bello" or "war-conduct" questions: What use of
military force is "proportionate" to the just goal being sought?
Are steps being taken to protect noncombatants? The just-war tradition, in
other words, does not (and logically cannot) begin with a
"presumption against violence," on the assumption that any use
of armed force in the modern world is inherently disproportionate and
indiscriminate. To begin this way is to empty the just-war tradition of
its moral power.
The questions of proportion and discrimination in the conduct of war come
into clearer moral focus once the "war-decision" questions have
been answered and it becomes clear that the public authorities have a
moral duty to use armed force to vindicate justice, defend freedom and
establish a minimum of order in world politics. That, in more
theologically focused language, is what President Bush proposed that the
United States would do, in his address to the Congress on Sept. 20.
Permit me to say, as an American citizen, that I am amazed and insulted by
what seems to be the assumption in much of the European secular press, and
even among some European religious leaders, that the United States would
deliberately target civilians in acts of reprisal against terrorism.
I am personally acquainted with many of the leading figures in the
Department of Defense, and I am confident that they are men and women of
honor and prudence.
3. There has been some talk about giving the CIA the go-ahead to conduct
assassinations. Is this type of action morally legitimate? And if so in
what circumstances: targeting the authors of terrorism, or also the heads
of their organizations? Would pre-emptive assassinations to prevent
terrorist attacks also be legitimate?
Weigel: I am quite convinced that pre-emptive military action
against terrorists is morally legitimate under the principles of the
just-war tradition. It makes no sense to say, as some moral theologians
have suggested, that a "just cause" is only established when an
attack is under way.
In a world of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, I don't
think it makes much moral sense to argue that we have to wait until the
nuclear-tipped missile or the biological or chemical weapon is launched
until we can do something about it. Indeed, the nature of certain regimes
makes their mere possession of weapons of mass destruction (or their
attempt to acquire such weapons and the means to launch them) an imminent
danger toward which a military response is not only possible but morally
imperative, for the protection of innocents and the defense of world
order. Here, too, is another example of an area in which the just-war
tradition needs to be stretched or developed to meet new realities.
The question of "assassinations" is perhaps a bit confused by
the terminology. If terrorists are conducting what both they and we
recognize as a war—i.e., the deliberate use of mass violence to achieve
political ends—then they are not civilians in the classic sense of the
term, they are combatants. The moral analysis follows accordingly.
The masterminds of terrorist organizations seem to me to be combatants,
too. I would probably draw the line there, not including, for example, the
terrorists' bankers as combatants—although I would certainly deal with
them through all available criminal means, just as I would have dealt with
such "merchants of death" through the criminal justice system
during the world wars of the 20th century.
4. What principles can we apply to action against a state that is
sheltering a terrorist group, for example, the situation of Afghanistan?
Weigel: They bear responsibility for the attacks insofar as they
shelter and support the terrorists, but without having themselves
committed the actual attacks.
To provide direct assistance, in the form of sanctuary, to a terrorist
group is to become morally implicit in its actions, of which the
"host" government cannot be in much doubt (at least as to
intentions). If such a "host" government refuses to acknowledge
that complicity and end it, then it seems to me that it has become an ally
of terrorism and another combatant, albeit of a somewhat different sort.
If a regime that has been harboring and abetting terrorists can be
convinced to cease doing so, the calculus changes. This may, in the
future, help clarify policy toward the Taliban and the present regime in
Iraq, on the one hand, and Syria, on the other. No student of world
politics can doubt that Syria has aided and abetted terrorism. But the
Syrian regime is not irrational and might change, under sufficient
pressure or threat. That seems very unlikely with either the Taliban or
the Saddam Hussein regime.
If military action is taken against the Taliban, then simultaneously the
U.S.-led coalition should lead a massive humanitarian assistance campaign
in Afghanistan. The war is not against the Afghan people, themselves the
victims of the Taliban. Vigorous action against terrorists and their
supporters, combined with a large-scale humanitarian relief effort, seems
to me what a just-war analysis of this particular situation would require.
5. Some call for the United States to seek redress through the United
Nations, or an international tribunal rather than take unilateral action
or limit itself to seeking a selected group of allies. The U.N. system has
many defects, but there is an ever-growing tendency toward the creation of
systems of international tribunals to resolve inter-state conflicts. To
what extent is a nation's sovereignty limited today by the need to submit
its acts to international approval?
Weigel: The question of sovereignty is another one where the
just-war tradition needs development or "stretching." The U.N.
system is, in the main, not very successful at all in dealing with world
order and security issues. And a country certainly does not need the
approval of the U.N. for self-defense, which is recognized as a basic
right of states in the U.N. Charter.
So at this juncture, the just-war principle of "proper
authority" does not require U.N. sanction of the use of military
force, although prudence, one of the primary political virtues, may well
dictate seeking such support.
The question of international tribunals is a very complex one. I am
concerned about the tendency of some international juridical bodies to
assert rather pre-emptively a jurisdiction that overrides national laws,
legislatures and courts. Some of these exercises have been arguably
defensible; others have been exercises in international political
correctness. The entire issue needs a lot more careful reflection than it
has been given to date. Not every move toward a higher level of political
integration in the world serves the classic political ends of justice,
order and freedom as the components of peace. ZEA0110131