“Operation Infinite Justice”: Ask Michael Walzer!

In naming the current mobilization “Operation Infinite Justice,” the Pentagon demonstrated that it is still wrestling with post-Vietnam syndrome. (It also echoed, inadvertently, the title of Infinite Jest, the absurdist novel by David Foster Wallace, but that’s another matter.) “Operation Infinite Justice” is even more self-consciously pre-emptive than “Operation Just Cause,” the name given to the 1989 invasion of Panama. “Operation Just Cause” was framed as an answer to the public’s lingering doubts about war in general. “Some wars are just,” it in effect said, “and this is one of them.” But “Operation Infinite Justice” seems meant to convey that this war is so just that its conduct lies beyond moral question. In fact, of course, no military operation can ever be infinitely just. Even the troops who freed Jews from concentration camps at the end of World War II weren’t infinitely just; some killed the German guards they took prisoner. That’s understandable, perhaps, given the monstrous crime against humanity the guards had committed. But it isn’t infinitely just. (Because “Operation Infinite Justice” is apparently offensive to Muslims, who believe only Allah can provide infinite justice, Donald Rumsfeld says he’s now planning to change it.)

Chatterbox supports a forceful military response to the outrages of last week. But what, precisely, should that response be? In mulling this question, Chatterbox decided to consult the social-science bible of just-war theory, Michael Walzer’s 1977 book, Just and Unjust Wars. As you might expect, Just and Unjust Wars offers no definitive answers to the current predicament. Walzer himself notes in the book that lasting judgments about the justice of this or that war can only be rendered retrospectively, and even many of these can get awfully complex awfully fast. (In the 1992 revised edition, for example, he renders a split decision on the Gulf War.) In the present instance, we don’t even know what the U.S. military is going to do. (A more accurate name for “Operation Infinite Justice” would be “Operation TK.”) Still, there’s been some speculation on a variety of scenarios, and three are worth considering in light of Walzer’s book.

Scenario One: Apart from legal questions surrounding the executive order prohibiting the assassination of foreign leaders (which President Bush can revoke whenever he wants), would it be just to kill Osama Bin Laden? (To keep things simple here, we’ll assume that Bin Laden is without question the chief perpetrator of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.)

Walzer makes clear that he finds assassination distasteful. Assassins should be treated not as political prisoners, but as murderers, “even if we share the political judgments of the men involved and defend their resort to violence.” Walzer’s bottom line, though, is that “just assassinations are at least possible, and men and women who aim at that kind of killing need to be marked off from those who kill at random–not as doers of justice, necessarily, for one can disagree about that, but as revolutionaries with honor.”

Not exactly a yes, but close.

Scenario Two:Would it be just to kill members of al-Qaida (“the Base”), Bin Laden’s terrorist network?

Walzer’s book takes up the analogous case of the Vietcong assassinations of 7,500 village and district officials in South Vietnam. Walzer says that might have been justifiable morally if it had focused only on those who were “agents of oppression.” In the Vietcong’s case, it did not–among those killed were public health officers and priests. Because al-Qaida is not a state, its members are presumably more tightly bound to its terrorist function. So, following Walzerian logic, it would probably be OK to kill Bin Laden’s cook, or his chauffeur, or anyone else who might be characterized as support staff.

Scenario Three:Would it be just to bomb or invadeAfghanistan?

Here is what Walzer has to say on the subject of reprisals to countries that host terrorists:

Reprisals have the form of a warning: if our villages are attacked, yours will also be attacked. Hence they must always respond to previous raids. And they are governed, after the rule of noncombatant immunity, by the rule of backward-looking proportionality. Though life cannot be balanced against life, the second raid must be similar in character and scope to the first. I am inclined to defend counterattacks of this sort, when these two restraints are accepted.

That’s a yes, provided enemy casualties stay below, say, 10,000. But there’s an important caveat: If the government of the host country is incapable of controlling its terrorists, such attacks are

difficult to defend. It is surely wrong to destroy the property of innocent people so as to bring pressure on other people who are in any case unable to act differently from the way they are acting. But one should never be too quick to deny the competence of an established government, for a certain loss of sovereignty is the legal and moral result of political powerlessness.

On balance, then, still a yes.

Chatterbox did not consult with Walzer in preparing this item, and he feels certain Walzer will feel he’s missed several crucial nuances. To this, Chatterbox replies in advance that perhaps, during wartime, Walzer should write a daily newspaper advice column or accept collect calls from the front.

[Update, Sept. 21: Walzer has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times that is an advice column of sorts. He stipulates two preconditions for military action: The targets must be “people actually engaged in organizing, supporting or carrying out terrorist activities,” and “we must be able to hit those targets without killing large numbers of innocent people.” On assassination, he writes, “I don’t believe that it matters, from a moral point of view, if the targets are groups of people or single individuals, so long as these two criteria are met.” Commando raids would be better than missile attacks because with a target this narrow “a soldier with a rifle is smarter than the smartest bomb.” If we do bomb, we should bomb government buildings, though these “will probably be empty.” Terrorizing the Afghani population by destroying the country’s frail infrastructure, such as electricity grids and water purification plants, Walzer writes, would be wrong.]