Justice, Not Appeasement

by Gene Callahan

Much as I had imagined, some people misunderstood the chief argument I presented the day after the September 11th terrorist attacks. “Aren’t we,” they asked, “backing down in the face of terror if we change our foreign policy due to these attacks?”

It was most emphatically not my point that we should stop, for instance, the embargo on Iraq because of the September 11th attacks. Our government should refrain from killing innocent people, at home and abroad, not because otherwise the terrorists will keep attacking us, but because such killing is wrong. We should stop it even if it meant there would be more terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, we should not be deterred from whatever we determine our duty to be, even if abandoning our duty resulted in fewer terrorist attacks. Imagine that a US Navy destroyer was in a position to rescue Israeli citizens from a burning ship in the Mediterranean, a ship that had been set ablaze by a terrorist bomb. The terrorists responsible threaten to attack the citizens of any nation that helps people off of the ship. Well, too bad. We do the rescue and go on alert for a terrorist attack.

I do not pretend to be a foreign policy expert. On some issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I will not comment, because I have not studied them in depth. Somewhat out of step with the times, I feel that it is more important to have studied the issues on which I have an opinion than it is to have an opinion on every issue.

On other foreign policy topics, however, I can’t see that deep expertise is required, because the moral situation is so clear-cut. One such case is the US-led embargo against Iraq. Again, I’ll use a hypothetical scenario to illustrate what I see is the moral issue at hand.

A criminal has killed members of my family during a robbery. He has gone into hiding. Although I can’t find him, I do know where some of his family members are. Since I can’t get him directly, I seize those people. I tell him I will kill one of them a week until he surrenders.

Is there anyone who contends that my action is moral, and that I have a right to kill members of the criminal’s family in order to get at him? If not, is there anyone who can explain how the embargo against Iraq differs from the case I present? Aren’t we killing innocent Iraqi people in order to get Hussein to cry “Uncle”? Yes, if he does, the deaths will stop. But so it is with our hypothetical criminal: If he should surrender, I would stop killing his family. Does that mean he alone is responsible for the innocent people I kill? No, of course not: Either of us could stop the killing, and both of us are responsible.

The above brings me to the complaint I received that I was “equating” various actions by the US government to the terrorist attacks. There were, however, no equations in my column. That remark may appear flippant, but it points to the truth that there is no calculus of injustice. If I am behaving unjustly, I should stop. It does not help my case to contend that others are acting “even more” unjustly.

Another frequent complaint is: “It’s not very realistic to think we can pursue non-interventionism.” (I greatly prefer “non-interventionism” to “isolationism.” “Non-interventionism” is the policy recommendation of the “paleos,” while “isolationism” is just a smear. I speak regularly with my neighbors, bring them vegetables from my garden, have play dates with their kids, and so on. If I do not also regularly bomb them or place armed guards in their yards, does that mean I’m isolated from them?)

In any case, in the real world it has turned out to be “not very realistic” to pursue empire, as learned by the Persians, Alexander, the Romans, the Mongols, the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, Napoleon, the English, Hitler, and many others. And it’s turning out to be “not very realistic” for us either.

John Derbyshire says out motto should be: Oderint dum metuant, or “Let them hate us, so long as they fear us.” Quoting Derbyshire: “Seneca rebuked Cicero for saying it, though it seems to have been current among educated late-republican Romans.”

Perhaps Derbyshire should note that this modus operandi failed. Not only did it succeed in destroying the Roman Republic, but also the Roman Empire created by it collapsed, and Roman civilization nearly disappeared, although, of course, remnants of it remain with us to this day.

Another response to my column contended that I had confused war with crime. When I wrote of punishing the aggressors, some correspondents said, “We punish criminals but defeat enemies, and this is not crime but war.”

But what is the difference? Well, if the event is a crime, then the principles of justice must be followed in meting out punishment. But we invent another category called “war” and make it the special province of the state. If we postulate that the principles of justice are suspended whenever we are at war, then the state can throw off the shackles of justice and do whatever it wants, including deliberately killing thousands who were not responsible for the initial injustice. We can look at this from the other side as well: If a combatant in a war is not attempting to justly punish a crime, then that combatant is itself criminal.

Imagine that someone I recognize kills my spouse. I don’t know his name or exact residence, but I’m pretty darn sure what block he lives on. So I buy a flame-thrower and incinerate the whole block. “Well,” I say, “he didn’t care that he was taking an innocent life, so why should I?”

Is there anyone who thinks that my action was not criminal, and that I’m not guilty of murder? Of course I am, and so, of course, is anyone else who follows such logic, even if they claim that they are acting in behalf of “the state.”

Some commentators have pointed out that, after being attacked by Japan, the US did not attempt to discover and punish only the specific individuals involved in the attack. But there was no question as to whether the attackers were acting as agents of the Japanese government, especially since the Japanese government did not repudiate the attack. We knew who was responsible.

The suggestion that we should just retaliate, never mind who exactly did what, is actually analogous to a situation where, on a hypothetical December 7, 1941, we only knew that “some Asian country” had attacked Pearl Harbor. Because of the attack, we contend that we were entitled to retaliate against any Asian country. Imagine this logic applied to ordinary crimes: You know that an Irish guy attacked you; therefore, you can beat up any Irish guy you choose.

The state is introduced as a deus ex machina to hoist such moral issues from the stage of human conduct into an ethereal realm of “statecraft.” The state posits itself as the prime enabler of human cooperation, thus exempt from the ordinary moral practices to which individuals adhere. Thomas Hobbes can be regarded as a prominent apostle of this view of the state.

Hobbes showed that, in a “state of nature” – human life without ordered society – humans are faced with what we, today, might call a game theory problem. Say that isolated humans Ug and Og both hunt in the same woods. If Ug sees Og with a nice rabbit, what is to stop him from splitting Og’s head open with a stone axe and taking his catch? More generally, how can they trust each other to keep any agreement to live peacefully together, when it seems the only way to be sure of “winning” is to get the other guy first? To solve their problem, says Hobbes, they agree to let a third fellow, Gor, resolve all disputes, including those between himself and Ug or Og, on a permanent basis. He will be their chief, and they give him all of their axes. Gor has become a proto-state. The essence of his status as a state is that the rules he applies to others do not apply to him.

In The State, Anthony de Jasay argues that Ug and Og have not solved their game theory problem at all. If they could not work out any way to trust each other without giving Gor extraordinary power, then how can they possibly trust Gor after he has been granted such extraordinary power and has all the big weapons?

Despite his exalted status, Gor must still be on guard against Ug and Og deciding they’ve had enough of his rule, and uniting against him. Several means serve this end.

One is to keep the people under state rule divided. The state’s interactions with its subjects will create special interest groups, and the state will attempt to maintain a coalition of groups who feel they are benefiting from state-granted privilege that is more powerful than any coalition of those who feel they are not so benefiting.

Another means is ceaseless propaganda about the benefits of state activities. (Compulsory public education is obviously one excellent medium for such propaganda.) Ideally, as a result of such propaganda, the populace will adopt several notions that serve to cement state rule. One is that the state is really “all of us.” Here, democracy has served as a good means to spread this belief. (If you think it is true that the state is all of us, then I recommend trying to take one of “our” fighter jets out for a spin one day.)

The state is also motivated to convince us that we are besieged by enemies, and that only it keeps these wolves from our door. Clearly, terrorism serves the latter project extremely well: see, for instance, the movie Brazil, or Umberto Eco’s essay “Striking at the Heart of the State.”

Of course, our recommendation for the current crisis cannot be that first we should eliminate the state and establish anarcho-capitalist defense organizations, then determine what to do about terrorism. We must begin where we are, with the institutions we really do have, and narrow our recommendations to conceivable scenarios. A good place to start is to get people to recognize that deliberately killing non-combatants is wrong, whether it’s done by terrorists or by those trying to hide behind the edifice of the state.

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives