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Toward a Humanist Doctrine of the Just War



Without God, Are All Things Permissible?

For me, Humanism is paramountly an epistemological doctrine, a doctrine of what we can truly know. And on that subject I confess I cannot see past the dictum of the Sophist Protagoras, which I regard as the cardinal doctrine of Humanism: “Man, homo sapiens, is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” For all I know, there might be a superhuman God who exists as an objective being, or there might be space aliens equipped with more senses than we have. But these possible facts are among the things that human faculties do not presently allow us to know. So all opinions about morality, like morality itself, must be purely human judgments. Here is how I go about making such a judgment. Here are the propositions I believe will prove helpful for Humanists as we decide our stances on the issue of war and its justification.

Square One is our instinctive loyalty to our families and then, as resources permit, our larger identity groups, including our country. But we also cherish certain values and ways of life just as much as the physical survival of our loved ones. These value commitments, mostly to freedom and human rights, may even supercede our blood loyalties. We might find that we have to break with kin and company over decisions for what we value as a higher good. We regard it as the right choice when individual Germans in WW2, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defied law and consensus to oppose Hitler and the Nazis—sometimes at the cost of their lives.

And this implies that we regard such values of free speech, thought, assembly, etc., as worth more than our own individual lives insofar as we would, like Bonhoeffer, be willing to sacrifice our lives for their sake, or for the sake of future generations.

As Humanists, I suspect most of us are ethical situationists or hierarchicalists. That is, we realize that no or very few values apply in an absolute way without any exceptions. Moral maturity is a matter of gaining the skill to rank those values in greater-to-lesser importance. And, just as important, to discern when particular values do not obtain. An obvious example would be the one Kant posed, though we would not agree with his decision: if you must lie to save an innocent life, shouldn’t you lie? We Humanists would agree that you should, though in other cases, where truth is the main issue on the table, it ought to be told, even at some cost. It’s just that it’s not always the main item on the table.

When we consider the possibility of a just war we are willing to consider that our usual value of safeguarding all human life may, in an emergency, have to yield to still higher values, such as the preservation of a free society. We might decide we had better be as ready to kill as to die in that cause. It helps me to clarify the matter if I picture it as a balancing trick. We find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, we face the deadly danger of conquest and the end of Enlightenment values and a free society. We know we don’t want that, and that we would not want to be complicit in allowing the curtain to come down on liberal civilization. We recoil from this danger when we resolve that tyranny (such as Hitler’s) and chaos (unleashed by terrorists) shall not prevail in our day.

But on the other hand, at the other extreme, we rightly fear sacrificing our values in the service of those very values! We do not wish to descend to the level of the evil hordes we oppose lest we come to be, as Rene Girard calls it, their “monstrous double.” At that point it becomes irrelevant who may have once been in the right. If one side is more sinned against than sinning, it is no longer by much. This is the danger with “fighting fire with fire.” It seems such a danger that pacifists refuse to cross the line onto what they feel will be a path of no return. Violence begets only violence, they say.

I can only say that I regard the pacifist stance, though courageous, as misguided. The pacifist recoils from the looming spectre of endless war. But the just war advocate recoils from the terrible threat of triumphant tyranny or chaos. I think there is no doubt that if free societies refused to resist, they would have found themselves, long before now, bound in the chains of aggressive imperialisms and ideological fascisms. No one can deny that Nazis posed a real threat to the freedom of the world. No one can deny that certain groups of Islamic fanatics seek a world theocracy in which the beliefs of fallible mortals, especially of infidels like ourselves, count for nothing. It is no mere fancy that freedom and democracy might perish from the earth. And when that danger raises its head, we cannot ignore it. If we do, future generations of the enslaved and the oppressed will reproach us for it with bafflement and contempt.

The option of rolling over in the face of aggressive tyranny is so repugnant that many of us feel we must take a second look at the prospect feared by the pacifist: total war, endless war, the war of all against all. And we find it something of a bogeyman. We look at history and we discover wars and rumors of war in divers places, true. But we also find that the American Revolution ended with good results. That the Kaiser and Hitler were defeated with a limited amount of bloody chaos. Wars are winnable, at least some of them. There may never be a “war to end all wars,” but neither does every conflict carry the cost of Mutual Assured Destruction.

So we who believe there can be just wars feel ourselves obliged to walk a fine, Aristotelian line, seeking after the Golden Mean between unacceptable extremes: surrendering to oppression (“Better red than dead!”) on the one hand, and becoming the very evil we are fighting on the other. It is a life-and-death calculus. There is tragedy in human existence, and it is our job to take the risk and minimize it. Refusing to play the game is not the proper response, because the other team will be there, baseball bats at the ready. We will lose. Freedom will lose. Civilization will lose.     


The Monstrous Double

Let me return to Rene Girard and the principle of the “Monstrous Double.” It stems from his interpretation of the many myths in which two brothers, cousins, counterparts, or twins fight one another. He shows how these stories are vestiges of ancient social conflicts between two classes, tribes, or castes. Each twin represents one of the warring factions. The “twin” imagery denotes, among other things, that in the process of conflict, one side is liable sooner or later to become morally indistinguishable from the other. No matter who started it, by the sheer fact of matching the fury of the other side, each side incurs matching guilt. Each becomes the “monstrous double,” the “mimetic twin,” of the other. Think of disputes between children. Parents know it doesn’t really matter who started it; the thing is to stop it. If it can be stopped, that is.

The principle of the Monstrous Double tends, I think, to modify the traditional doctrine of the Just War. I have already mentioned the danger that we will likely have to descend temporarily to the level of the enemy so as not to succumb to him. In such a case we place some of our values on hold for the duration, hoping we will remember to take them up again once the conflict is over. But the principle of the Monstrous Double also means that, in any current conflict, it matters less who was in the right when it began than who is less in the wrong now. For me this means, for instance, that, once one side adopts the weapon of terrorism, raising the stakes to threaten the stability of civilization, then it no longer matters what their original grievances may have been. Thus I will admit I simply no longer care what grievances the Palestinians or the Chechens may once have been able to point to. They have forfeited the moral high ground. But I have worse to say…


Looking into the Abyss

I will now venture to say what cannot be said in polite company. I must ask you to forgive me for saying this, and yet, for all its loathsomeness, I fear we must consider the forbidden question if we hope to be ready in case we have to face it someday soon. It is the question of genocide as a just war.

I guess I began thinking of it back in 2001, just after a friend mused, with some appropriate horror, on the fact that Palestinians were celebrating and rejoicing over the Twin Towers disaster. He said, with a sense of foreboding, “This may be the end of the Palestinians as a people.” I guess he imagined the Palestinians might be inviting reprisals from us. That never happened. But he had, it seemed to me, cracked open ever so slightly the lid of a Pandora’s Box that I have not since been able to close completely. The Palestinian Intifada has brought me to the understanding, if not the approval, of something I never thought I could understand and wish I still couldn’t. And that is genocide.

I have always assumed genocide was the product of unjust hatred against some rival people or nation, old vendettas getting out of hand. I gather that is what is happening today in the Sudan, and what happened in Serbia. I looked at the Bible tales of genocide against the Amalekites and the Canaanites as self-evident pieces of moral barbarism. But then I watched the news, and I began to understand. I observed how the Palestinian culture appears to be single-mindedly devoted to destroying Jews. Women and children became suicide bombers and assassins, all for the glory of Allah and the Palestinian homeland. Worse yet, little children were catechized to aspire to becoming human explosives and Jew-haters. A culture gone terribly malignant.

How long, I asked myself, will Israel put up with this? How long before they decide they need peace? And what will they do to gain it? They know by now that diplomacy is just what Will Rogers said it was: the art of saying “Nice doggie!” while you’re looking around for a rock. They know it is but a delaying tactic exploited by those who regard the very desire for negotiation as a sign of fatal weakness and as the first stage of capitulation.

I think Israel would correctly perceive that as long as any Palestinians remain alive, seething in their inherited resentments, there can be only one solution: a final solution. The logic is the same as that of a new king who consolidates his reign by slaying the whole royal house of the dynasty he deposed, lest some disgruntled heir grow up and lead loyalist forces to retake the throne. If the new king leaves any of the previous dynasty alive, he is a fool.

All I have said about Israel and the Palestinians applies equally to Russia and the Chechens. Sooner or later, the logic will appear, or will become, ineluctable. And the resultant horror might even be justified. Justifiable. It will seem to have become a necessary evil. It may actually have become a necessary evil if one is dealing with an intractable foe dedicated to destroying one’s own people. Your implacable foes will have left you no choice but genocide or suicide.

That is what is so terribly frightening about it. It is thinkable, or will soon seem so. We must try somehow to avert it before it gets to that point. If genocide can in certain circumstances be defended as a necessary evil, then it becomes no longer quite so evil. The challenge then is to make it less necessary.


 By Robert M. Price



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