Justice and Self-Defense: On a Military Response to Terrorist Attacks

by | Sep 25, 2001 | Military, POLITICS

The case for large-scale, decisive US military action in response to the Sept. 11th massacres is two-fold: justice and self-defense. Justice consists of treating people as they deserve. It is exercised by rewarding and encouraging the good in others and by punishing and discouraging the bad. The murder and maiming of innocent people–thousands, on Sept. […]

The case for large-scale, decisive US military action in response to the Sept. 11th massacres is two-fold: justice and self-defense.

Justice consists of treating people as they deserve. It is exercised by rewarding and encouraging the good in others and by punishing and discouraging the bad. The murder and maiming of innocent people–thousands, on Sept. 11th–is the paradigm of that which is bad. The only just response to it is punishment, of a kind commensurate with the heinousness of the attack.

To strike back with force is not “blind vengeance” that “sinks to their level.” Such characterizations ignore the context created by the terrorists’ action. The difference between initiating violence against an innocent person and using force in response to attack is obvious. Would we condemn the woman who uses force to fight off a rapist as no better than he? Of course not; most of us would not even dignify such a question with a response.

It is not rage that warrants military reprisal. It is clear-eyed reason: honest recognition of the vicious nature of the slaughter of thousands as well as recognition of the threat that it represents to all of us. American military action is justified by our most basic conviction that respect for human life is good and that destroying innocent human life is bad, and by a correlative acknowledgment that the two attitudes cannot co-exist. When some have declared war on innocent life–in their holy proclamations and in a series of ever more hideous deeds–those who respect life must rise to its defense. If we do not, we invite only more scenes like those searing our hearts in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania today.

We have given peace a chance, and it hasn’t worked. For years, the US has responded to terrorists attacks (on our embassies, on the USS Cole) with token gestures designed more to look tough than to destroy the enemy. We have fooled no one and achieved nothing. Our limp response has only emboldened an enemy who is more diabolical than we had realized.

My expertise is not military, so I cannot prescribe the exact course that our government should take. It must be sufficiently massive to eradicate the terrorist threat, however. This objective might not be easily or quickly accomplished, as political leaders have been warning in recent days. So be it. This is not reason to fail to do all we can to eliminate this threat once and for all.

As we mourn the thousands whose lives were so brutally extinguished, much of our grief stems from the knowledge that their lives were *wrongly* taken. These people did not deserve to die; their families do not deserve to suffer. Those who did this, do.

Military action is never undertaken with relish. It is incumbent on our government, however, charged with the defense of Americans’ lives and liberties, to undertake decisive reprisals today with righteous resolve. Our cause is just. If we truly honor the victims of these massacres and if we truly cherish our lives and liberties, we must destroy those who have already destroyed so much.

Tara Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, is a contributing writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes the ideas of Ayn Rand--best-selling author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and originator of the philosophy of Objectivism.

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