Responding Justly to Terrorism

There is no question that our nation will respond with force to the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What will our response look like if it is shaped by the Catholic understanding of principles of justice in warfare?

The first question that arises is whether war is a proper response at all. Some will insist that international terrorism should be treated as a matter of criminal law enforcement, rather than war. If, however, as appears at this writing, the attacks were the work of international terrorists operating as part of a network that is harbored and abetted by regimes that are sympathetic to both their aims and methods, then a military response can certainly be justified.

Of course, a just war can be waged only as a last resort. All reasonable nonviolent options must be explored before force can be justified. Hence the pleas of Pope John Paul II for all nations to search for alternatives to war. In current circumstances, however, the United States and its allies have exhausted every means short of war to deter and disable the forces of international terrorism. The murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are powerful evidence that nothing short of war will be sufficient to protect innocent Americans and others from future terrorism.

It is true that some of our fellow citizens, in their understandable shock and outrage, are demanding “retaliation” and “revenge.” However, people who understand and accept Catholic teaching will neither think nor talk that way. A just war can be fought only in self-defense or in the defense of third parties who have been subjected to, or are threatened by, unjust attack. The objective of a just war is redress and prevention of injury. Other goals, such as the avenging of past wrongs, territorial gain, or acquisition of natural resources, may not legitimately be sought. Of course, there is nothing unjust about seeking in the course of a justified war to capture terrorists or others guilty of criminal wrongdoing and bring them to justice.

Recently, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, in his role as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to President George W. Bush calling attention to “the norms of the just war tradition” that must govern our nation’s response to acts of terror. Bishop Fiorenza stressed three key elements of Catholic just war teaching: (1) “probability of success,” (2) “civilian” immunity, and (3) “proportionality.” Each of these elements is easily misunderstood, especially in the context of a war against international terrorists. Let me, therefore, attempt to clarify these requirements.

In a war against terrorism, the requirement of a “probability of success” means that force, especially deadly force, exercised in line with all the other requirements of justice in warfare, must have a reasonably good chance of succeeding in preventing future terrorist acts. “Probability of success” must be understood as something more than a technical requirement that the use of force achieve its objectives, whatever they happen to be. A purely retaliatory attack may achieve its goal of destroying, say, a power plant or electrical system; but it would nevertheless fail the “probability of success” test. Of course, if the objective was to destroy a power plant or other facility to prevent the terrorists’ use of it to carry out acts of terrorism, that is a different story.

Although Bishop Fiorenza spoke of “civilian” immunity, plainly he meant to refer to the traditional concept of “noncombatant” immunity. Many terrorists are, in fact, civilians, but they are by no means immune from legitimate military attack in an otherwise just war. On the other hand, soldiers who are not part of a terrorist network, or are not being used to shield terrorists or otherwise facilitate their crimes, are noncombatants (and are thus immune), though they are not “civilians.”

If the other requirements of just warfare are met, then persons whose activities constitute or contribute to a terrorist threat may be attacked with a view to eliminating the threat. But only such persons may be attacked. Merely sympathizing with terrorism, though deplorable and profoundly blameworthy, does not in itself make a person a legitimate target of attack.

The “proportionality” requirement to which Bishop Fiorenza referred is the principle that the degree of force used must be no greater than what is required to eliminate the terrorist threat. In particular, care must be taken to minimize harm to noncombatants who, in almost any war, are often killed or injured as a side effect of legitimate uses of force.

Of course, the principle of non-combatant immunity does not forbid every act whose foreseeable consequences include harm to noncombatants. But where such harm may rightly be accepted, it must be no more than what is unavoidable in fulfilling the legitimate aims of a justified military operation.

Unfortunately, the term “proportionality,” which indeed has an established place in the just war tradition, has in recent years been adopted and distorted by Catholic theologians who dissent from the Church’s moral teachings in a variety of areas, and whose views have been condemned by the Holy Father in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor as contrary to divine revelation. It is important, therefore, that Bishop Fiorenza’s use of this term not be misunderstood to imply a utilitarian (or consequentialist or “proportionalist”) calculus in deciding questions of moral right and wrong. Properly understood in the moral evaluation of warfare, “proportionality” requires that the use of force be in line with all pertinent moral norms. In particular, it demands strict observance of norms of fairness in deciding whether to carry out bombing and other military operations whose foreseeable side effects include death or injury to noncombatants.

These norms of fairness are rooted in the Golden Rule as taught by our Lord: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In the concrete circumstances of warfare, they require that the harm one causes be no greater than one would think it fair to cause if the persons harmed included one’s fellow citizens or others on one’s own side of the conflict. Factors irrelevant to moral evaluation—such as nationality, religion, language, and even moral and political opinion—may not be used as grounds for imposing greater harm, even as a side effect in a just war.

Although not all of Bush’s policies are fully in line with Catholic moral and social teaching, he has in his campaign and in the conduct of his office listened respectfully to Catholic voices and sought to learn from the wisdom of Catholic teaching. Indeed, some of his key initiatives seem to be shaped quite directly by principles of Catholic social thought. It is hard to think of a president who has been more interested in what the Church has to say. I hope that in shouldering the profound burden of sending men abroad to kill and die, the president will draw heavily on what the Catholic tradition teaches about principles of justice in warfare. My prayer for him, for our country, and for all who will be affected by his decision is that he will observe these principles strictly. He could do no better for all of us than to do that.


  • Robert P. George

    Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He is co-author (with Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson) of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

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