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Justice must still justify the means

Help me out with this one. Would you encourage your 20-something kids to vacation in a country currently engaged in what could well be a morally problematic military operation? This week, my sons, who are Jewish by birth, are on the way to Tel Aviv for an Israeli state-sponsored trip.

Hopefully, they will be cosseted from rocket fire, but I have qualms about them sitting in cafes and sipping cappuccinos in a country that seems to be taking its right to defend itself to questionable levels.

A few days ago, I caught a report from public television on the conflict in Gaza. There were clips of Palestinian families huddled in their homes. As Israeli planes thundered overhead, one little boy's face worked with tics, the signature of fear. There were videos of blood-drenched toddlers being rushed to hospitals — where there were hospitals to take them to. Of course, Israelis rightly insist that for months now, their own boys and girls have been living under the threat of Hamas missiles.

But how much harm can a nation legitimately deliver to make itself feel safe? Is everything permissible after the call to arms?

Not according to Just War theory, an age-old body of beliefs formulated in the hopes of preventing organized state violence from becoming sheer mayhem. Developed over centuries by philosophers and theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius and, most recently, Michael Walzer, Just War theory provides the moral and legal basis for judgments about going to war (jus ad bellum) and conduct in war (jus in bello).

As this theory has it, a state may justifiably resort to war in order to protect the lives and rights of its citizens after it has exhausted all peaceful means of trying to resolve the conflict. But there are parameters. According to Just War theory, the defenders must both distinguish between enemy combatants and noncombatants and make reasonable efforts to protect the lives of the latter.

And then there is the issue of proportionality. As philosopher James Sterba articulates the theory, "The harm resulting from the belligerent means should not be disproportionate to the particular defensive objective to be attained." The idea is that in the interests of eventual peace, a minimum of might should be used for the purposes of self-defense. For Israel, of course, the objective is the removal of the danger of missile sallies.

Proportion is not easy to define, but up until two weeks ago and the start of the airstrikes, four Israeli children had been killed by Hamas projectiles. Though there is some dispute about the actual numbers, the Associated Press, using figures from Gazan health officials, reported that about 800 Palestinians have died since the conflict began Dec. 27, half of them civilian, most of those women and children. More than 3,000 Palestinians have been wounded. This kind of imbalance is to be expected in asymmetric wars in which one side has rocks and old rockets and the other precision bombs. But expected or not, the carnage coming from Israel is excessive.

Not that the Bush administration has been much help, but up until now, there were not enough efforts at international diplomacy. And while there are elements within Hamas who see the annihilation of Israel as their aim and those in Israel who feel the same in reverse, I do not believe that the immediate menace was dire enough to warrant a full-scale Armageddon-type response. The scope of the operation has been such that Israel has been forced to come forth on a number of occasions and explain that, despite appearances, the intent is really not to topple Hamas, which thanks to democratic elections holds a strong place in the governance of Gaza.

For those who believe that a war can be justly fought, it is critical to remember that justice on the battlefield sometimes requires risking harms that could otherwise be eradicated with the pull of a trigger. It is not enough to refrain from targeting civilians. Just War precepts mandate making earnest efforts to shield the innocent. Atomic weapons aside, it would be wrong to bomb an orphanage even if it was known that there were missile launchers in the dormitories. A few days ago, Israeli shells hit the perimeter of a U.N. school. An estimated 30 to 40 people, many of them women and children seeking refuge, died.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted last week, there are many on both sides of the border who believe that this is a fight to the death and as such Just War theory does not apply, for the theory is always looking toward preserving the prospects of long-term peace. In all likelihood, the cycle of Hamas' fusillades and massive Israeli counterstrikes will only serve to recruit another brigade of blood-in-the-eye suicide bombers. Nevertheless, some point out that costly as Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon was, Hezbollah has been pretty quiet these days. Still, even if the ordnance now being dropped on Gaza from air, land and sea succeeds in suppressing future attacks, the Israeli onslaught remains disproportionate and wrong; no less wrong, of course, than Hamas' targeting of civilians, but just the same, wrong.

Gordon Marino is professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His "Ethics, The Essential Writings" will be published by Random House in 2009. This essay is adapted and expanded from a version that appeared in the Huffington Post.

Justice must still justify the means 01/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 3:31am]
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