Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Winter 2001; Volume 7, Number 4

Can The State Justly Kill Innocents?

"War and Murder," and "Mr. Trumanís Degree," in Ethics, Religion, and Politics by G.E.M. Anscombe (University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 51-71

The events of September 11, and the response to them by the Bush administration, make Elizabeth Anscombeís classic essays newly pertinent. Her essays present the most influential account by an analytic philosopher of the just war tradition. Several of the points she raises help us to evaluate the presidentís policy of force.

Anscombe rejects pacifism, but the occasions that justify resort by the state to external violence are few. "The same authority which puts down internal dissension...must equally oppose external enemies. These do not merely comprise those who attack the borders of the people ruled by the authority; but also, for example, pirates and desert bandits, and, generally, those beyond the confines of the country ruled whose activities are viciously harmful to it" (p. 52). Later, she allows armed force "to put frightful injustices right" (p. 68). Absent one of these circumstances, war is forbidden.

Anscombeís criteria challenge the current policy of the United States. As the official account has it, the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have behind them a terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden. Various commentators have disputed the accuracy of this account; but if it is right, action against this group clearly passes Anscombeís test. The major difficulty for the Bush administration lies elsewhere. (Once more, I assume for the purpose of argument the veracity of the "official" story.)

The United States demanded that the Taliban regime of Afghanistan hand over to it Osama and his chief lieutenants and destroy the camps of his organization. When the Taliban refused this ultimatum, the United States commenced a massive policy of bombing, designed to topple it from power. By Anscombeís standards, how can a direct attack on Taliban forces be justified? Did the Taliban join with Osama in plotting an assault on the United States?

Rather, it is alleged that the Taliban stands guilty of complicity because it allows Osama to reside in Afghanistan and will not surrender him. In doing so, is it engaged in conduct "viciously harmful" to the United States? Unless it is, just war theory condemns the administrationís policy. It is important here to bear in mind the exact question at issue. The United States does not merely claim that it may use force against Osama and his band in Afghani territory. It also claims that it may destroy the armed forces of the governing regime there.

Suppose one accepts the rationale behind the presidentís policy. Has the conduct of the war been just? At first glance, it appears so. Has not the United States aimed exclusively at military targets? A number of civilians have been killed, but are they not "collateral damage"? "[I]f you attack a lot of military targets, such as munitions factories and naval dockyards, as carefully as you can, you will be certain to kill a number of innocent people; but that is not murder" (p. 66). The famous doctrine of double effect underlies Anscombeís judgment. So long as the bombers do not bring about the death of civilians as a direct means to their goals, no murder has occurred. The death of the innocents is a foreseen consequence, not the intended aim.

Supporters of the "collateral damage" view are not yet home free. Anscombe is careful to note that the appeal to indirect effect can be pressed too far. "It may be impossible to take the thing (or people) you want to destroy as your target; it may be possible to attack it only by taking as the object of your attack what includes large numbers of innocent people. Then you cannot very well say they died by accident. Here your action is murder" (p. 66). Whether the United States has crossed the line must be for readers to judge.

Anscombe also suggests another point that can be applied to the current crisis. Unless we adopt a resolute response to terrorism, it is often suggested, do we not render ourselves constantly at risk? This question rests on an unstated premise.

The question takes for granted that the United States should maintain its global commitments: lacking these, would it be necessary to "respond" to quite so many terrorist threats? Of course, one can reply that the terrorist danger would menace an isolationist America no less than it does today, but is this not implausible?

Anscombe brings out in a masterful way the fallacy of assuming the status quo. In response to the claim that using atomic weapons against Japan saved lives, because otherwise a massive invasion would have ensued, she is forthright: "I do not dispute it. Given the conditions, that [an invasion costly in lives] was probably averted by that action. But what were the conditions? The unlimited objective" (p. 65). Given certain conditions, drastic measures appear needed; but should this very fact not make us take a close look at the supposed necessities of the present state of things? If we do not, but instead insist that extreme circumstances demand extreme responses, we are in danger of adopting the maxim that "every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him" (p. 65).


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