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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Justice or Vengeance?

Critics of the strike on bin Laden have not only raised questions about international law, but also about just war theory in their critique of President Obama’s decision. I devoted a recent post to  what I see as the key defense within international law for the action in Pakistan, and I want to give this blog over to a look at the justice aspect of this strike.

In a post at the Christian Century that I stole the title for this post from, the ethicisit Tobias Winright gives a helpful overview of relevant just war questions posed by the attack:

Just wars are supposed to restore and maintain a semblance of that tranquil order. The aim of a just war—its right intent—should be to restore a just and lasting peace. Augustine wrote,
“Peace should be the object of your desire. War should be waged only as a necessity and waged only that through it God may deliver men from that necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not to be sought in order to kindle war, but war is to be waged in order to obtain peace. Therefore even in the course of war you should cherish the spirit of a peacemaker.
He argued that wars were justified to defend the innocent, avenge injuries, punish wrongs, and to take back something wrongfully taken. He ruled out revenge and vengeance, let alone mere retributive justice. Rather—and this is tied to his understanding of right intent—his hope was to have evil persons repent and reform, thereby restoring the peace. "We do not ask for vengeance on our enemies on this earth. Our sufferings ought not constrict our spirits so narrowly that we forget the commandments given to us. . . . We love our enemies and we pray for them. That is why we desire their reform and not their deaths."
Augustine did not think that just war contradicted Jesus' injunction to love one's enemies. Just war is a form of love in going to the aid of an unjustly attacked innocent party; however, it is also an expression of love, or "kind harshness," for one's enemy neighbor. It aims at turning the enemy from his wicked ways and toward making amends and helping him rejoin the community of peace and justice. "Therefore, even in waging war," Augustine wrote, "cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace." (emphasis added)

 I think that many critics are convinced that the attack against bin Laden was not just because they think it was “mere retributive justice”, and that rather than “restoring a just and lasting peace” it will “escalate violence”.  In making this argument they fail to appreciate the broader context of this strike—they see it only as an example of vigilante justice, not part of a wider vision to “restore and maintain a semblance of that tranquil order.” It is my strong conviction that such arguments are knee jerk reactions rooted in an ignorance of President Obama’s long-term goals and efforts in the region. When the strike against bin Laden is seen in this broader context it is clear that its intent fits within the just war tradition. Today’s Washington Post gives major coverage to the fact that the President has quickened the pace of negotiations for a just peace in Afghanistan after the death of bin Laden and it is clear that the strike in Pakistan has given renewed hope for the success of those negotiations, which had started months before the strike against bin Laden. In other words, the strike fits within a larger strategy of strengthening existing efforts to negotiate a just peace for Afghanistan. It was not a random act of retributive justice, but part of a broader effort to weaken Al-Quaeda so that the Taliban will see the chance to break their ties with Al-Quaeda and enter into the negotiations that can allow for the lasting peace needed in Afghanistan. The president has repeatedly said there is not a final military solution to Afghanistan. There must be a political reconiciliation there and the strike against bin Laden makes that reconciliation more possible than before. 

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