Terrorism and the Inadequacy of Just War

The election is over, but the Green Party Provencher Riding Association isn’t going away. We’ll be hosting an event every other month or so for the next four years, on topics that are relevant to the riding but are also tied to the Green Party of Canada’s platform and policies. We’re doing this because these policies are relevant to our riding, and because sharing and discussing good ideas makes our community a better place. Along those lines we also hope to start a book club in the near future, with the first book of discussion being Elizabeth May’s latest, Who We Are.

Last night was our first event along these lines, and we had a fantastic turnout. For the first half of the event I lectured on nonviolent responses to terrorism; for the second half, a representative from MCC talked about refugees and resettlement. There was great discussion, and it was a lovely pairing of theory and practical action. Next up, sometime in late February, will be a practical workshop on nonviolent conflict resolution – watch our website and email list for more information.

Here’s the text of my lecture. – Jeff


The Nation State and Just War
Western responses to terrorism are based on an outdated understanding of the world and a deluded sense of self-righteousness. Which sounds harsh, so let’s unpack that.

The nation state is used to being the centre of the universe, and of being the sole arbiter of what is right and just. This makes some sense in a world in which the nation state is the supreme power that can control everything within its borders and writes the laws that govern everything that occurs within them. A few hundred years ago, that was the state of the world, and diplomacy arose as a way for nations to jockey for advantage over one another peacefully – or as the saying goes, All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means (Zhou Enlai, 1954). The nation state as an institution is charged with protecting its population, but it is always in the interests of the nation state to also maximize its internal economy; the nation state is responsible for and to its own citizens, physically and economically, and has little or no responsibility to outside nation states. Or at least, such was the world a few hundred years ago. Alliances were formed between nation states for mutual advantage, and over time some alliances grew so close that national borders began to break down between allies, part of a process that we now call globalization.

In a globalized world, the nation state is no longer the centre of the universe. National borders are porous, either because they are no longer guarded (as between member nations of the European Union), or because of the success of human trafficking, or because of the general ease with which people can move from one place to another to facilitate trade and international travel. In the internet age, borders and physical places do not mean as much as they used to, and regional cultures and ideas now spread at the speed of light across the web. Alliances and treaties have created institutions that function at a higher level than the nation state, such as the UN, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the G20, to name but a few, and corporations have gone international, grounding their headquarters in whatever country has the lowest taxes and planting their factories in whatever country has the cheapest labour. We live in a very different world than the one in which our understanding of just war was developed.

Just War

Christian theology has two traditions when it comes to conflict: Just war, and nonviolence or pacifism. The earliest Christians were pacifists, refusing military service or to work as a magistrate, or any other work that involved killing. The growth of Christianity, and its inclusion as an official religion in nation states, required some sort of reconciliation between the protective function of the state and the nonviolent requirements of Christianity. This happened relatively early on in Christian history, and Just War has been dominant in Western nations ever since, though there have always been nonviolent Christians. The Just War tradition insists that war is a last resort, and subjects all wars to a list of criteria, which includes criteria for starting wars and for conducting them. To start a war, a competent authority (usually a legitimate nation state) may wage war as a last resort to correct a suffered wrong, provided that there is a good chance of success and that the possible good outcome outweighs the damage or harm caused by the war. Once war has begun, the authorities conducting the war must distinguish between enemy combatants and non-combatants; must only conduct actions that are militarily necessary, and then only with as much force as is necessary to complete those military objectives; must not use methods of warfare that are considered evil, such as rape, weapons that cannot be properly controlled (nuclear or biological), or forcing enemies to fight against their own side; and must treat prisoners of war fairly.

There are two problems with Just War theory: first, at its very core it implies that nation states ordering thousands of citizens to kill each other is morally just so long as there are good reasons for it. When it comes to war, just war theory claims, the ends justify the means so long as the means do not exceed certain criteria. The second problem, and I hope this is obvious, is that the criteria are completely impossible to satisfy. War is hell, and the level of control that would be required in order to ensure that no soldiers rape or kill civilians is impossible. The level of intel and precision that would be required to ensure that no non-military targets are attacked is impossible. The greatest so-called intelligence agency in the world told us all that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which began a ten-year war in which no such weapons were used or even found. And the so-called precision of coalition air strikes in the current war in Syria included bombing a hospital, killing not only civilians but also allies from Doctors Without Borders. And the treatment of captives by a nation that pledges “freedom and justice for all” included the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and sensory deprivation and degrading humiliation. And in spite of all of this being common knowledge, much less known by the highest officials of nation states, the United States of America has been involved in 102 wars or military actions in its history, most of which were against indigenous populations within the US. I have read somewhere, though I cannot find where, that Just War criteria are weighed by a special council to the Commander-in-Chief before the US declares war; in Canada, Cabinet makes the decision to deploy troops, apparently without any such counsel. Clearly in both cases not all just war criteria are met, but the wars are deemed justified anyway, and that justified status reinforces the often questionable notion that we are always the good guys. In many wars, the US has been the aggressor and has had duplicitous intentions, or even bald ambitions. Canada has been involved in 15 wars in our history, though we’ve had token involvements in others, but those 15 include two against the Metis peoples of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in which Canada was the aggressor as part of racist colonial policies. In Afghanistan, which was ill-advised in the first place and shifted the purposes of its military action regularly, we knowingly handed prisoners of war over to other nations to be tortured – keeping our hands clean, but still getting blood on our souls. We are not always the good guys.

But what does all of this have to do with our response to terrorism?

Terrorism

Terrorism is a term referring to the implementation of psychological tactics in warfare. It is unclear whether psychological warfare is prohibited by just war criteria, but terrorism is also often used to describe guerrilla warfare and insurgency because of the tactics used – often in densely populated areas, using imprecise and unconventional weapons with high possibilities for civilian casualties, and often with civilians as targets. Terrorists are not considered to be authorized by a legitimate authority (i.e., the government of a nation state) either. So terrorism fails the just war criteria in many ways, which has an enormous effect on how we see and combat terrorists.

How are we currently fighting terrorism?

We do not negotiate with terrorists. Doing so would imply that they were a legitimate party, and we dare not give them any sense of legitimacy – after all, they fail so many of the criteria of just war with their military actions. The result of this, intended or not, is that we not only dismiss terrorists as legitimate organizations, but we also dismiss their grievances as being illegitimate. This is a problem, because terrorists often have very legitimate grievances, and very important goals. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, after all, is which side you’re on; terrorists are often simply the most extreme and committed of a population that is being oppressed, economically or militarily or culturally, by another power. Whether or not we understand or agree with their grievances does not mean that they are unimportant or grounded in real harm and oppression, but when we disregard those grievances because of the way that terrorists attempt to address them, we only feed the oppression that they experience. When we fight them, we legitimize their use of violence and their claims of oppression, which only helps them recruit more frustrated and oppressed people to their cause.

Disregarding the cause of terrorists causes us to make stupid, unsustainable reductions about their motives. We say “they hate freedom,” as if that even makes sense. This general sense that terrorists and their struggles are illegitimate has led us to use the term “terrorist” as a blanket term for anyone we deem illegitimate, even our own people. We use the word, poorly defined, in legislation such as C-51 to refer to anyone who “interferes with critical infrastructure” such as oil pipelines. C-51 and other laws strip “terrorists” of basic legal and human rights, allowing them to be arrested and held without charge, surveilled without warrants, and even possibly tortured. Our attempts to control terrorists tends to stir up more dissent, both abroad and at home, and the broad net cast over “terrorism” keeps getting broader.

Why can’t we control terrorists? Because they do not conform to our nation-state-centric, just-war governed world. Terrorism is warfare for the globalized world, in which combatants are not representative of a nation state with a clearly defined border, but rather represent ideas and cultures that move freely around the world. The tactics of terrorism were developed in insurgencies, where the governing force has difficulty distinguishing between enemy combatants and civilians. Enemy combatants are no longer marching over a border from another nation state, they are springing up among us.

This puts us in an impossible situation, because we are fighting a 21st century war, with 21st century technology, on 19th century terms. We use invasion and occupation to attempt to control enemies whose tactics were designed specifically for such situations. We try to use conventional combat to fight insurgents and guerrilla fighters, not unlike the British and French lining up on fields to shoot at each other in a gentlemanly sort of way, while their Indigenous enemies laid ambushes and hamstrung their supply lines.

This is not to say that we haven’t innovated to deal with the situation. The US has used drone strikes incessantly over the past several years to hit priority targets without engaging in open combat. As Noam Chomsky points out, this is our own brand of terrorism:
“A drone strike is a terror weapon, we don’t talk about it that way. It is; just imagine you are walking down the street and you don’t know whether in 5 minutes there is going to be an explosion across the street from some place up in the sky that you can’t see. Somebody will be killed, and whoever is around will be killed, maybe you’ll be injured if you’re there. That is a terror weapon. It terrorizes villages, regions, huge areas. It’s the most massive terror campaign going on by a long shot.”
There have also been efforts to combat ideology, usually in the form of building schools and promoting educational programs, but more often it’s simply talk. How can we speak meaningfully of undermining extremist ideologies when we’re actively bombing a region? Other less violent solutions involve training locals to fight, and arming them to do so, but that runs into the danger of using local populations to wage a proxy war, as the US did against the USSR in Afghanistan, training and arming Osama bin Laden in the process.

Our conscience and economy demand action, but our outdated mindset on nation states and just war force us into violent conflict against an enemy that does not wage war by our rules and is often indistinguishable from our own peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Perhaps it’s finally time to give nonviolent conflict resolution a chance.

What is Nonviolence?

Nonviolence is a conflict style, an ethical choice, a way of life. For some, nonviolence extends to all aspects of life, leading some nonviolence practitioners (notably Dukhabors and some Buddhists) to veganism; for most, nonviolence is a commitment to refusing to perpetuate the cycle of violence – because violence always begets more violence. But nonviolence is not just a refusal to participate in violence, it is also the active opposition to evil without committing evil. It is not the avoidance of conflict, but rather an attempt to foster healthy conflict resolution that does not escalate to violence.

A prominent myth of pacifism or nonviolence is that it is passive, and that it is weak. It is neither: nonviolent direct action takes incredible courage and enormous amounts of work, just as fighting a war does. Most of us assume that nonviolence involves being vulnerable to the attacks of others, and this is true – but the opposite assumption, that having weapons or using violence provides safety, is not true; nonviolence recognizes that weapons and the threat of violence only increase the danger of any given situation, and works to de-escalate conflict.

An important point about nonviolence is that it sees the very notion of just war as hypocritical: there’s a big difference between violence being necessary to meet a goal and violence being justified. One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who, in spite of his commitment to pacifism, took part in a conspiracy that ended up attempting to kill Hitler on more than one occasion. While it is not clear whether Bonhoeffer himself was in favour of those assassination attempts, what is clear is that he accepted his guilt, not only before men but also before God. When we commit violence, its necessity does not get us off the hook. We must always consider our own guilt when we count the cost of violent action.

Another important point about nonviolence is that while it should logically precede just war – which is supposed to be a last resort – it rarely does. Nonviolent direct action includes an entire toolkit of tactics and strategies that are rarely used, but when they are used they are found to be at least as successful as more violent strategies. Going back to WWII for another example, the Scandinavian nations were able to save most of their Jewish citizens despite the fact that they did not offer much in the way of violent resistance to the Nazis. Instead, they used nonviolent strategies such as diplomacy, negotiation, and sabotage, making a full invasion too costly to be worthwhile.

Nonviolent direct action was instrumental in the liberation of India from centuries of British rule (thanks to Ghandi), the enfranchisement of Black Americans under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the fall of South African apartheid through leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the removal of several dictators in the recent Arab Spring, to name just a few. While violent revolutions tend to lead to counter-revolutions as other powers rush in to fill the power vacuum left by the deposed rulers, nonviolent direct action tends to build movements that result in lasting cultural change.

Can a Nation Act Nonviolently?

Nonviolence is easier to understand as a personal choice or way of life than as a national defence strategy. After all, a nation must defend its people, and there may be foreign threats to our safety that are not concerned about using violence against us. But this feeling, this fear of outside threats, is a reflection of our assumptions about nation states and the other – and as we’ve seen, some of those assumptions need updating. In the age of terrorism, a standing army is not a particularly effective safety measure. In spite of having the biggest and most expensive military in the world, more Americans die at the hands of neighbours with handguns than in war on the other side of the world. There are mass shootings every single day in the US, and a vast majority of those have nothing to do with terrorism at all; ideological terrorism is indistinguishable in result from racism, sexism, homophobia, deluded narcissism, drunken arguments, or road rage – all of which end in seemingly random killing. Our primary enemies are not other nations at all, but rather our very selves: whether because of ideologies found online that influence people toward extremism, or simple ignorance, hatred, and drunkenness, our greatest threat of violence is domestic.

Even so, let’s think about what kind of nonviolent practices Canada could employ. Here are a few:

First, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Armed conflict doesn’t come out of nowhere, and helping others to address their needs and crises goes a long way toward developing international goodwill and alliances. Until recently, Canada has always had a sterling reputation: we are global leaders who contribute disproportionately to international causes. We have the opportunity to use trade as a tool of economic development rather than strictly for enriching our own economy, and we should strive to exceed the UN target for aid contributions of 0.7% of GDP (we’re currently at 0.24%, well below the average). The world is better with Canada in it, and we should strive to be more valuable to others than our natural resources and empty land would be if we were destroyed. Our ability to share and to welcome outsiders is the greatest defence strategy we could ever have, and our current opportunity to welcome in refugees is an excellent place to start rebuilding our reputation.

We’ve already seen that terrorism is often home-grown, the result of ideas that spread across traditional boundaries such as borders and cultures and that are fed by legitimate grievances. One prominent grievance is cultural marginalization. Canada has a history of cultural marginalization, from the attempted cultural genocide perpetrated against our Indigenous peoples, to the cultural and language division between English and French, to common attitudes toward Muslims and visible minorities. If you don’t think that Canada is a racist place, you haven’t been on Facebook lately. Cultural marginalization breeds extremism, so a national conversation about our so-called mosaic of cultures is an important step toward not only a more friendly Canada, but also a safer, less extreme Canada. As we welcome Syrian refugee families over the next few years, we have an excellent opportunity to reach out and grow in our understanding of a different culture, and through that to reduce cultural marginalization in general in Canada.

And speaking of legitimate grievances, let’s stop bombing people. Violence begets violence, and the Parliament Hill shooter was very clear in his pre-rampage message when he said that he was doing this because we were bombing Muslims in other countries. He was right – we were. Now we’re pulling out of that mission, in spite of tremendous pressure from our citizens and our allies to continue. I applaud Mr. Trudeau’s courage in doing so. When we begin using nonviolent means by which to address or call attention to our own concerns, we will stop provoking violent opposition.

Second, the use of nonviolent protest, or even government campaigns, to raise awareness about important issues of the other can undermine support for terrorist organizations. People become violent or support violence when they feel like they have no other voice or options; providing or amplifying their voices by raising awareness for their issues can provide a nonviolent avenue for those frustrated by the lack of attention on their legitimate concerns. But this requires listening.

We’ve seen that the just war model cannot negotiate with terrorists for fear that doing so would legitimate an illegitimate government or institution. Nonviolence is not threatened by perceptions of legitimacy, because it is grounded in the value and sacredness of life. In the just war model, something else legitimizes a state, and therefore that state’s actions (divine right, perhaps?); in a nonviolence model, we actually have to be good and show genuine concern for our neighbours. Which means listening, negotiating, and generally treating them as if they were people. The lives of people on both sides are more valuable than nationhood or pride. That said, listening and even sharing concerns does not mean that we must agree: the aims of Daesh are simply wrong, and we should absolutely oppose them. But if we can address and draw attention to the concerns of the people of Iraq and Syria, perhaps Daesh will not be an attractive option, and they will wither from a lack of recruits and support.

Third, we can train Canadians, both civilian and military, in nonviolent conflict resolution. This means developing a pro-conflict attitude in our culture that promotes addressing conflicts in a healthy manner, without allowing them to fester or escalate. I would suggest that we begin with training our police forces in nonviolent conflict resolution, and devoting a considerable portion of our military to the same; from there we could begin national campaigns or support volunteer programs of unarmed civilian peacekeeping such as Peace Brigades International. Peace Brigades is an organization that physically “gets in the way”, providing protection to people in conflict zones by physically accompanying them; another such group is Christian Peacemakers. Another option for our military that is still potentially violent but not necessarily so, is to reinvest Canadian troops in the UN Peacekeeping forces; we used to be the number one contributor, but we haven’t been for a very long time. The Green Party also suggests that a considerable portion of our military forces be retrained as disaster relief forces; climate change will cause disasters to increase, and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable before conflict arises is a solid strategy.

Fourth, we can stop selling weapons internationally. Before losing the 2015 election a few months ago, the Conservative government worked to broker a $15 BILLION dollar purchase of Canadian military hardware by Saudi Arabia, a nation known for harbouring extremism and with a terrible record of human rights abuses. Canadian production of weapons has increased by about 5x in the past few years, we are the 12th largest exporter of weapons in the world, and we have refused to sign on to the international arms trade treaty that would prohibit the transfer of conventional weapons that promote acts of genocide or war crimes, violate arms embargoes, or be used against civilians. Those 15 billion dollars might come in handy economically, but they’re not worth as much as peace. Weapons we don’t produce can never be used against us.

These are a handful of options. There are more, and I want to encourage you all to be creative in your conflict resolution and share your ideas with your MP. But the general gist of nonviolence, as an individual or as a nation, can be summed up pretty well by Jesus: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. There is no reason why we cannot do all of those things before resorting to violent military actions; I believe that if we actually did, we would never need military actions at all.

2 thoughts on “Terrorism and the Inadequacy of Just War

  1. There are two ways to deal with one’s enemies: kill them or convert them. The combat tactic used will determine which of the two is more likly to ensue.

    Conventional thinking rests of the premise that if the threat of death is sufficiently real, the enemy will convert. We, on the other hand, and unlike our enemy, are noble; we have our just cause. The more we are threatened, the more we commit to our cause.

    So it’s inevitable: we employ war to convert the enemy; to convince them that their cause is futile, that they should give up. But that can only happen if their commitment to their ideology is significantly less than ours. Given what we have already seen, this is extremely unlikely.

  2. Please help the MCC’s resettlement programs. You can go to mccmanitoba.ca and click on the Refugee Response link or call Arisnel Mesidor at 204.925.1914 for more information.

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