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Justice will be done

Joan McGregor

President Bush said that "justice will be done." All of us would like to see justice done in response to the horrific acts of terrorism perpetrated against innocent people in New York and Washington D.C.. We all experienced the terror, panic, fright of the events of September 11. Along with the fear and terror, we all experienced the terrific sense of sadness and sympathy for the victims and their families. No single event has so profoundly clutched our collective hearts. Hearing the descriptions of the individuals' life stories, individuals with families and hopes, futures that now wouldn't unfold in their own unique way, who hasn't cried for what should have been for those individuals. After the tears, we got angry and wanted justice.

What does justice mean in this context? Before we consider that we should be cautioned that anger and the desire for justice don't sit well together. When we are angry, our vision is often clouded by our emotions and can make us act in ways that go beyond justice. Sometimes the desire for vengeance is merely the desire to lash out and seek to injure others because we have been injured. That reactive response if not tempered can be indiscriminate and disproportionate-- going beyond doing justice.

What is doing justice? There are different frameworks for thinking about justice in a situation like this one. The first is the juridical one, which would culminate in a trial in a court of law with an appropriate sentence being given to the perpetrators of this crime. Justice is done when through a fair trial, where the defendants are provided the opportunity for a defense, they are found guilty and the punishment proportionate to the offense. They get their "just deserts." This process does not always satisfy our desire for vengeance-that is, our desire to inflict injury on the wrongdoers in a like manner to what they have done to us. Imagine the victims of the atrocities of Milosevic, seeing him in the World Court in The Hague, getting a fair hearing for his crimes. We can imagine their desire to do to him what was done to them or their loved ones. But living under the rule of law and by the dictates of justice isn't always gratifying, but those are the ideals that we hold and espouse. And to do otherwise is to become the monsters we hate. Another problem with the juridical sense of justice in this instance is that the immediate offenders were killed themselves in their attacks. No trial for them will do justice. We could, of course, go after their accomplices and bring them to justice. If this can be done then it should be. However, doing this will be difficult and would not permit us to go after all the terrorists groups that Bush has declared "war" on. So at most we might be able to provide evidence linking a few remaining individuals to this horrific attack.

The other sense of justice that we could attempt to do comes from the honorable just war tradition which permits engaging in violence when one has a "just cause" defined as being (unjustly) attacked, so its defensive, or defending an innocent third party who has been attacked. Before aggression even then can be justified, we must be satisfied that there are not nonbelligerent alternatives that would be effective. When that condition is satisfied there are additional constraints on the aggression that can be pursued. The first is that innocent people (or "noncombatants") cannot be intentionally killed. Innocent peoples' lives cannot be used to get at the noninnocent people. Second, the aggressive means must be proportionate to the particular objective that is being accomplished. Constraint on our violence is necessary for the means to be just.

Can we satisfy the requirements of just war theory in this conflict? Initially we have the problem that Osama bin Laden is not the leader of a nation-state, we suspect that he is the leader of an organization known as al-Qaeda. Suppose that we have evidence that he and his group are the masterminds behind this attack, who do we attack? Afghanistan at this time seems the likely target. But the Taliban, however repellent they are as a government (and I believe that they represent one of the most oppressive regimes in the world-particularly for women), are not the same as al-Qaeda. Alright, suppose since the Taliban has been supported by bin Laden and they have provided sanctuary for him and his group that they are culpable enough, that is, in just war language they are "noninnocents." The Taliban officials and party members can be seen as noninnocents or as combatants since they aided the combatants. Nevertheless, the repressiveness of the Taliban regime means that we cannot say the same for all the Afghan people (particularly the women who have no voice in this regime). If our response is to bomb Afghanistan, we will undoubtedly kill many innocent people (what in military language they call "collateral damage"). Since what we are defending against is the killing of innocent people, how would our actions, killing many innocent people, be justified? Would these attacks quench our primitive urge for vengeance, our desire to injure others because we have been injured? Notice it is sometimes permissible to do actions that involve killing innocent people, for example, in bombing an ammunition storage facility an unintended outcome might be to kill some farmers who live in the area. But to engage in a war with a country that has almost no military targets and a large impoverished and disenfranchised population, requires more efforts for justification. Before we rush to satisfy our sorrow and anger, we need to consider how and whether justice can be done.

Professor Joan McGregor
Department of Philosophy
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-2004