Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 19, 2001
War must respect moral norms
Jesus advised us to turn the other cheek when confronted with evildoers. It is a counsel many Christians have lived out honourably over the centuries, aware that returning violence with more violence only serves to escalate the differences among people.
But the Church has never accepted pacifism as a moral norm. It recognizes the right to self-defence, the right of stronger parties to use force to protect the weak from abuse, and the right of nations to use force to protect themselves and their legitimate interests.
What does all this mean for the war of the United States and its allies against terrorism and against the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The Church's teaching on war and peace is surveyed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2307-17). The Catechism makes the crucial point that moral law remains valid during armed conflict. War does not give a warring party the right to do whatever it sees fit in order to achieve objectives it believes to be good.
A vital distinction must be made between the use of force for revenge and the use of force for self-defence. The former is never justifiable; the latter can perhaps sometimes be justified.
Leading moral theologians Germain Grisez recently wrote, "The use of force to prevent terrorism can be justifiable and morally required of those responsible for defending the community. Even deadly force may be used against those one reasonably expects will otherwise continue to pose a grave threat."
But Grisez also noted that in the current context in which terrorism is carried out by members of a widespread group for ideological ends, "Any possible response is likely to have only limited success at best." Opponents of terrorism may bluster about wiping terrorism off the face of the earth - such an eventuality is unlikely when using military means alone.
Thus the current attacks on Afghanistan cannot be seen as an adequate response to terrorism. "A sound response must also include a very serious and sincere effort to improve relationships with less radical members of the group whose interests the terrorists are trying to promote by their bad means. That serious effort at reconciliation must be implemented by economic and political action to mitigate suffering and reduce hatred."
To date, no advances in this latter area have been made by the U.S. government and its allies, although British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been eloquent about its necessity. For the most part, the allies have given every sign that they believe terrorism can be ended by military action abroad and increased security at home.
Increasing security by reducing civil liberties and integrating Canadian and American rules for accepting immigrants and refugees ought to give us significant pause. They undermine both the human dignity that is honoured by the existence of civil liberties as well as Canada's national right to self-determination.
They also threaten the right to immigration upheld by the Catechism: "The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood he cannot find in his country of origin" (no. 2241).
The killing and injuring of innocent residents of Afghanistan must be deplored. Although unintended, this violence is foreseeable and carries with it some level of moral culpability for the perpetrators.
Further, the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis within their homeland cries out for material assistance. The U.S. and its allies, including Canada, cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the plight of these people.
Any nation moves into an area of moral danger and temptation when it attempts to defend itself militarily from aggression, even those as provocative as the murderous attacks of Sept. 11. That doesn't mean it shouldn't defend itself. But it should do so fully aware of the moral limits of such a military response as well as the unlikelihood that a military response alone will provide long-term justice for anyone.
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