merican aircraft carriers head for the Persian Gulf, and the president steps up his threats against terrorists. It is in times like these, when anger, pain and outraged patriotism are tossed together with talk of war, that moral philosophers, theologians and others who study the ethics of modern warfare begin to worry.
"It was St. Augustine who said the greatest danger of war is not the physical harm that it causes but the passions that it inspires," said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a Catholic theologian and professor of the practice of religion in society at the Harvard Divinity School.
As Americans reel from the enormity of the attacks, a moral equation hovers: what would be the appropriate, effective and just response by the most powerful nation on earth?
St. Augustine, the fourth century Christian philosopher, was one of the first to tackle the concept of a just war, but the idea of setting limits on when and how wars should be fought is as old as armed combat. Rules of engagement have evolved; it was only after the devastating civilian casualties in World War II that the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War were signed in 1949.
Still, each new war brings another moral quandary and another round of debate. This time, as several scholars have noted, the issue lies in the asymmetrical balance of forces. On one side is a modern superpower with a full arsenal of high-tech weapons restrained by popular moral revulsion at the prospect of inflicting unintended damage on innocent bystanders. On the other is a shadowy network of conspirators who may lack modern weapons but have no qualms about killing thousands of victims.
Few moral philosophers except committed pacifists dispute that the United States has just cause to use force in this case. But many emphatically reject the use of the word "war" in anything but a metaphorical sense, noting that in this case the enemy is not a state against which hostilities can be formally declared and from which surrender can be sought.
"It is like the war against crime or drugs," said Sir Michael Howard, a noted military historian. "It is a way of mobilizing forces, but that is not a war."
Still, the restraints of a just-war doctrine must apply, Sir Michael continued. "If one is engaging in police actions against international criminals, it is even more important that we do no more damage to innocent bystanders than is absolutely necessary," he said.
But those restraints, many agree, are particularly difficult to apply against targets who are not only elusive and covert but who deliberately use the civilian population for cover.
"The response is problematic because it is so hard to identity and isolate the terrorists, and therefore it is hard to aim at them," said Michael Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the author of "Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations," a 1977 classic that sought to give a modern definition to war ethics.
In calibrating the response, the first task is to clarify both the motives and the goals, several scholars noted. Mr. Walzer, among others, rejects the notion of retaliation, which in many ways is simply a code word for revenge. "It would be a great failure of our political leadership if they were satisfied or persuaded us that we ought to be satisfied with an act of retaliation," he said. "We could do what the Israelis do, which is bomb some empty buildings and claim that is retaliation. But I don't see the point."
"What our leaders are now responsible for, if they are serious, is an effective campaign against terrorism which must be waged on every front, diplomatically, ideologically as well as militarily," he said. "It should be about effectiveness and not some emotional release."
The Roman Catholic Church, which starting with St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages has elaborated its own doctrine of just war, long ago ruled out revenge as a legitimate motive for use of force.
"The intention must be to prevent injustice, to respond to injustice and to re-establish a just peace," Father Hehir said. "The essence of the tradition is that the only morally legitimate response is a limited response."
Father Hehir, a Jesuit who also teaches at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, noted a growing opinion among Catholics that all use of force is morally illegitimate. That position, he said, has drawn strength from Pope John Paul II, who opposed the Persian Gulf war.
"The pope has supported the use of forces in some cases," he noted, "but he has done so with great hesitation."
Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at the Duke Divinity School, is an avowed pacifist who argues that the United States should construe its reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks as a police action in which the goal is not to kill but to arrest the perpetrators.
Mr. Hauerwas said he had been "absolutely dumbfounded" at the ease and haste with which Christian leaders in the United States adopted a belligerent stance that in his view is at odds with the teachings of their religion.
"Christians have a very hard time in America distinguishing themselves from the assumption that we are on board whatever America wants to do," he said. "Most American Christians are blank check people who believe we should go kill whoever the democratically elected American president says we should kill."
Others also noted that the language used by political and religious leaders in the first days after the attack was particularly vengeful. Sir Michael dismissed this as "blowing off steam and the expression of entirely understandable sentiments." Indeed, in recent days, talk of "ending states," even of a crusade, has subsided as the United States government more realistically weighs its options.
"We are always going to be faced with alternatives," Sir Michael said. "By causing minimal damage, we could fail to reach our objectives. By causing maximum damage, we could appear no better than the criminals we have killed. Both would be failures."
Some scholars argue that the enormous civilian casualties of World War II, including those caused by the United states and its allies at Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, have prompted most Western governments to reconsider the acceptable limits of force and even to bind those limits into international agreements like those signed in Geneva. The Vietnam War, with My Lai and other unjustified killing, resulted in further revisions in what is seen as the proportionate use of force.
"Since the gulf war, the U.S. military has been using the language of `just war' in ways that they didn't in Vietnam," Mr. Walzer said. "The decision to stop the war in Iraq was a decision which, while it may not have been wise politically, was within the `just war' doctrine. You defeat the aggressor, you restore the status quo ante, and you stop."
But Sir Michael and others argue that none of the limited wars fought by the United States or its allies in the last few decades have put such notions to a real test. "There have not been the temptations nor the necessity to break the rule of just- war doctrine," Sir Michael said.
Mr. Walzer, in his 1977 book, argued that only "supreme emergencies," like the one created by Hitler's aggression in World War II, allow national leaders to use evil means and accept the resulting guilt. Such, he said this week, is not the case in the campaign against terrorism.
"Looking at America's options, there is a very close connection between fighting effectively and justly," he said. "If we go in somewhere and kill a lot of civilians, then the world will not think we are sufficiently different from those we want to attack."
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