Applying The Just-War Theory To The War On Terrorism

I ran across this piece while researching morality of killing in war. If “jus ad bellum” and “jus in bello” are of interest to you, this is an interesting read.

by Mark S. Latkovic
Before answering this question of how just-war principles apply to the war on organized terrorism, we must first deal with the question, what is terrorism? While admittedly difficult to define precisely, Pope John Paul II has usefully defined “terrorism” as “the intention to kill people and destroy property indiscriminately and to create a climate of terror and insecurity, often including the taking of hostages.”26 The Pope’s definition is close to that of Harvard University terrorism expert Jessica Stern, who makes clear that firstly, terrorists, unlike those fighting in a (just) war, aim at noncombatants. Secondly, unlike simple murderers or assailants, terrorists use violence for a dramatic purpose, for example, to instill fear in the targeted population. Thus, Stern defines terrorism “as an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience.”27

This desire to instill fear and create panic, I might add, is already satisfied to a great extent in the terrorists inasmuch as they know that we react with fear and panic over the knowledge that they, the terrorists, are willing to use (but even apart from their use, i.e., the mere threat of using them) chemical and biological weapons (just think anthrax) and nuclear weapons if and / or when they acquire the latter. In sum, terrorism is not so much an ideology as it is a (violent) means adopted by those individuals or groups who wish to further a particular ideology or political goal.

Given the non-conventional nature of terrorism and of the war on terrorism itself, does the just-war theory have anything to contribute to moral reflection on them? As I have already noted, I as well as other respected scholars believe that it most assuredly does. With respect to the use of force against terrorists, the Georgetown University professor of social ethics John Langan, S.J. offers three useful questions that must be answered affirmatively in order for the military response to international terrorism to be and continue to be, moral.28 These questions, it seems to me, are essentially specifications of some of the conditions of the just-war theory:


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