On Proportionality

Steven Den Beste, writing at Chicago Boyz has an interesting piece on how calls for “proportionality” plays into the hands of terrorist groups. I think his analysis is basically right: when you’re battling terrorist groups, exactly what constitutes “proportionality”? If one takes proportionality as being its literal meaning, wouldn’t that meaning that Israel would have had carte blanche to strike at Lebanese villages with random rocket attacks just as Hizballah did against Israeli towns? Obviously it can’t be that, unless one wishes to argue that the US would be justified in sawing off the head of Osama bin Laden and triumphantly broadcasting it on CNN.

Had Hizballah possessed the ability to hit Israel with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, would they have? It’s hard to argue that conventional notions of deterrence would work with such a group. They’re not deterrable because they’re not basing their actions on a rational calculus. (Or perhaps they’re basing their actions on a calculus of some sort, but one based on a version of Islamic millennialism rather than a conventional rational calculus.)

The whole point of proportionate response in the context of Just War Theory is to preserve the interests of non-combatants. Nuking all of Afghanistan into glass parking lot by the morning of September 12, 2001 would not have been a proportionate response because it would have killed millions of innocents along with the guilty parties. However, what happens if not taking out a terrorist group with overwhelming force causes more civilian deaths than a more “proportionate” response?

That’s the situation that Israel faces with Hizballah and Hamas, and we face with al-Qaeda. All of these groups act like viruses or cancers — establishing themselves into a host and hijacking its functioning to reproduce themselves and spread to others. Many treatments for such ailments are highly destructive, but necessary in order to prevent greater harm. One cannot fight a group like Hizballah and al-Qaeda without incurring collateral damages to civilians — the fact that they hide in the midst of the civilian population ensures it.

However, the myth of proportionality is that there’s some magic pixy dust that can distinguish between terrorist and combatant and that the US and Israel are morally culpable unless they do just that. That is not a realistic demand.

The methods of terrorism hurt the civilian populations that terrorists use as cover — that is an unavoidable part of fighting this scourge. However, those who argue for a more “proportionate” response only allow the problem of terrorism to fester, greatly increasing the odds that terrorists will make a provocation that the attacked country cannot help but respond to with absolute force. That doesn’t save lives, it only perpetuates terrorism and rewards it as viable and successful tactic. That isn’t serving the greater good, unless one assumes that a world wracked with terrorism is a good outcome.

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