War Is Always Justified
I just heard someone say, “One war crime does not justify another.” My reflex as a peace advocate is to agree with that statement, but something gives me pause. It starts with a grammatical issue but it doesn’t end there.
The only beings on earth that perform the act of justifying are human beings. “War crimes” do not perform that act. What the statement intends to say is something like, “One cannot legitimately use one war crime to justify another.” But what is this “legitimate”? A substitute for justifiable. One cannot justifiably use one war crime to justify another. We are on the brink of an infinite regress that seeks to convert the subjective act of justifying something into an objective property, as if one could filter all acts through a moral sieve that separates them into two categories, the wrong and the right.
Seen this way, the statement about justifying war crimes is exactly wrong. People do indeed use one war crime to justify another. With the exception of crimes of passion, which people typically justify in retrospect, all wars and most violence begins with justification. The heinous acts of the other side are high-octane fuel for the justification engine.
In the objective sense of an ethical principle, we can argue whether this or that war was justified. But in terms of the rhetorical act of the human being called justifying, all wars are justified. Someone is justifying them.
This is why, as I have argued over the past month, we must exit the conversation about what is justified if there is ever going to be an end to the violence in the Holy Land.
The word just comes from the Latin justus — upright, equitable, lawful, right, proper. To justify literally means to make it right. To take something self-interested or indeterminate and make it into something right, that is justification. It is much easier to override the heart’s repulsion and harm others when aided by a story in which it is right.
Both sides in the Gaza conflict believe they are right. Hamas and the Israeli government both justify acts of carnage. So it has always been, and so it shall ever be. To end it, we have to appeal to something outside of what is justified, who is right, and who is wrong.
Force me to speak in terms of right and wrong, and I would say, yes, it is wrong to kill 4500 children in a bombing campaign. I would say it is wrong to kidnap and murder innocent festival-goers and children in a kibbutz. I do not mean to establish the two sides as equivalent here. I understand well the assymetrical dynami
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