9/11 and “just war”

As the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. approaches, we suggest that you review the principles of just war described here by Dr. Michael Corgan. Then consider:

Aftermath of 9/11 attacks: View of World Trade Center ruins

Image in public domain

  • Can the extremists who made the attacks in 2001 justify them based on just war principles?
  • Was the U.S. response to those attacks consistent with just war principles?

First, it is clear that the 9/11  attacks violated most–but perhaps not all–of the generally accepted principles of a “just war.”  Specifically:

  • It was not undertaken as a last resort.
  • It was not committed by a legitimate authority.
  • It was committed in pursuit of a hopeless cause, which is not morally justifiable according to just war principles.
  • Establishing peace was not the goal of the attack (as stated by Bin Laden himself).
  • The attackers did not discriminate between combatants and civilians; worse, they deliberately targeted civilians.

Whether the attack violated two other just war principles is a matter of debate. Specifically, for a war to be just:

  • It must have a just cause. Although some people around the world would argue that there was some truth to Bin Laden’s diatribe concerning American aggression against Muslims in the Middle East, the attacks were not undertaken to prevent or stop a genocide.
  • The violence inflicted must be proportional to the injury suffered. The death, pain, and destruction created by the attacks was tremendous. Was it disproportionately high in relation to any violence the U.S. might have been responsible for prior to the 9/11 attacks?

Finally, many proponents of just war theory in the U.S. (including President Jimmy Carter) have argued that the post 9/11 attack on Iraq by the U.S. was also not a just war. As you consider the just war principles stated above, what do you think of this question?

Listen to what this Iraq war veteran says:

Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology

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16 Responses to 9/11 and “just war”

  1. Donna says:

    Very well said. I was not aware of much of this information so it was quite enlightening. It is sad to me that war has to happen and interesting to me that it has rules to govern it. On one hand, it all seems barbaric but on the other hand there have been freedoms and benefits when a war happens for well stated reasons. One example of this actually led to the start of freedom for us here in the United States as our forefathers left Europe seeking a better life and freedom elsewhere.

    • kathiemm says:

      Thank you for your comment, Donna, and of course you are right that the U.S. gained its nationhood through revolution. But do remember that one of the big events leading up to the Revolution was the Boston Tea Party, one in a series of non-violent refusals to pay taxes to Britain for tea. While the colonists may have been focusing on rights and freedoms such as “No taxation without representation,” the British government, nearly bankrupt from its European wars, invaded the colonies as much for economic reasons as for anything else. They were after money and after resources. They may have believed that war was the only way to maintain their pipeline to those resources. They did have other alternatives, although the history of Europe right up until those times was to take resources by force. We well might ask, Is that the pattern the U.S. should be following today?

  2. Cristina says:

    I would say that neither the 9/11 attacks nor the US war in Iraq are based on just war principles. Mainly, the causes stated by both Bin Ladin and George Bush for the attacks are, I suspect, far from the truth. I believe that the actions taken by these men can shed light on the real causes for these attacks. And, as stated above, the 9/11 attack did not prevent/stop genocide, and the invasion of Iraq did not clearly target the terrorist group, but rather an entire nation. Either way, I see “just war” as an oxymoron. Where is the justice in doubling the violence already suffered?

  3. Samantha says:

    I have read the material that is stated above, and I have to agree that war is war no matter what; however, this attack on 9-11 was not just any war, it was just a plain attack that has resulted in people dying in both nations that no one can ever give back. What each of these nations have done is just plain wrong! One wrong does not make a right! And to my thoughts this was two wrongs that have caused pain and destruction to both countries.

  4. kathiemm says:

    We have had several posts focusing on the work of George Lakoff, who explains the ways conservatives have framed issues so as to consolidate and extend their power. Click on this link to see his analysis of the aftermath of 9/11 and the things that ordinary people need to do if they don’t want all wealth to go to the already-wealthy, if they don’t want their environments sacrificed to the rapacity of capitalism, and if they would prefer to live in a world of peace instead of a constant state of war:
    http://www.readersupportednews.org/opinion2/291-144/7393-focus-911-intimidation-via-framing .

    For an antidote to 9/11 discouragement and overload, see the engaging essay at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/simon-cohen/the-war-on-error_b_956333.html

    It begins, “As the search for General Terror continues, Citizens begin to question the decision to wage war against him ten years ago. Victory, like General Terror, is nowhere to be seen.”

  5. kathiemm says:

    Good question, Christina, although the post 9/11 response of the U.S. government has increased the amount of violence more than 1000-fold. Thousands of babies, children, grandparents, have died often excruciating deaths. Hard to imagine any justifications for that.

  6. Susan Hillman says:

    The attacks of 9/11 were done for reasons that did constitute the attacks that were made. Bin Laden, himself, said that peace was not the purpose of the attacks. Additionally, the attacks violated war principles because innocent people were needlessly hurt and the amount of damage done (death, pain, etc) was proportionally high compared to other forms of attack or violence. Bin Laden purposely targets helpless civilians that were not a threat to him. Additionally, the attacks were not meant to stop genocide but only for Bin Ladin to start his own version of Jihad against the American people.

  7. Minga says:

    Sending in a Psalm of War’s Alienation

    Not Yet

    Not yet
    I can’t go back yet
    I am still forbidden
    To plunge into your roads
    To yield to your rivers
    To contemplate your volcanos
    To rest in the shade
    Of my tree.
    From abroad I see you
    My heart watches you
    From abroad
    Constricted, watches you
    In memories
    Between wavering bars
    Of memory
    That widen
    And close,
    Ebb and flow in my tears.
    It is difficult to sing you
    From exile
    Difficult to celebrate your nebulous
    Jagged map.
    I can’t do it yet
    A dry sob
    Sticks in my throat.
    It is difficult to sing you
    When a heavy boot
    With foreign hobnails
    Tears your bleeding flesh.

    by Claibel Alegria

  8. Syed says:

    9/11 reminds us the disastrous day that caused human suffering and death in the form war, not only in the US but also overseas. The terrorists do not have any religious beliefs, their motto is human suffering and killing, and their motive is crime and devastation. We need to eliminate terrorists because they nothing more than murderers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not only put our courageous soldiers in the harms way but also other innocent people who are trapped in those war zones. Since the attack on that day of September 11 in NYC, several thousands of innocent people including younger and old men and women, and children have lost their lives and nothing is accomplished after such a great loss. One Bin Laden was killed but thousands of Bin Ladens are still out there, killing and bombing innocent people everyday. If all these world powers and their alliance cannot stop these terrorists, then who can? Can we ever live with love and peace in this world regardless of what religious beliefs we have? After all, we are still humans.

    • Lara says:

      9/11 was a horrible day for America and will never be forgotten by the Americans. I personally had never been so scared in my life and I am glad that President Bush sent troops over to fight for our freedom of terrorist. Terrorist are mean and they scare me as well. I have learned that many terrorist from over there do it in fear of their lives or in desperation for money. I can not imagine having to murder in fear of my life. I personally would rather someone murder me then to murder others as I would not be able to live with myself if I murdered innocent people.

  9. tom greening says:

    Americans easily forget that 9/11 is the anniversary of the date we helped overthrow the elected government of Chile and replace President Allende with Pinochet. That caused more long-term death and destruction that “our” 9/11.
    Will we ever recover from our righteous chauvinism?

  10. In my opinion there are many issues the world has that makes countries stronger. Although the terrorism activities of 911 hurt the security in the country, it is the one historical event that drew the country closer. People everywhere no matter color, creed, or religion drew closer to one another and felt sympathy for one another. Other countries sympathised with America and wanted to aid in the fight against terrorism.

  11. Takisha says:

    The tragic events of 911 will forever be in the thoughts and minds in the American people. Although it was the most tragic event in the history of our country it is also the most memorable one. The reason being is because that even single handedly pulled everyone together. People everywhere from different nationalities, religions, races, and creeds pulled together for one common goal. Peace on earth after the tragic events. Every country came to aid in the help in fighting the war on terrorism.

  12. Laura says:

    Takisha and others – did you not listen to the war veterans speech – or read the article, this is about the terrorist activities of the American government, amounting to the murder of millions of civilians in response to the 9/11 attacks.

  13. Carolyn Certilman says:

    I often question the idea of a “just war” altogether. Certainly, neither the 9/11 attacks, nor our government’s response to them are wars that I would consider following ALL of the principles of a “just war.” And regardless of whether one believes that there can be a “just war” or not, it seems clear to me that for a war to possibly fall into that category all of the principles must be met, not just some. At the same time, I feel that in any act of war it will always be possible to argue that one principle or another is not being met, hence my reluctance to commit to the idea that a “just war” could exist at all. The difficulty lies in genocides: the Rwandan Genocide, the Holocaust, and many more. Is it unjust for other countries to step in? Should we engage in peace talks with the enemy and allow the genocide to continue for however long it takes? These are questions I think about often but can not answer. In an ideal world, I believe that when all of the principles of a just war are met, military action would be justified. However, due the the nature of the political systems of many countries on this earth, it is too easy to argue that all of the principles are being met when the true ideals behind a “just war” are simply not there, or at least not a primary motivator for military action. Clearly, when examining our government’s involvement even with regard to genocides in the past, the catalyst for its involvement has always been political in nature, rather than moral. Yet, there are undeniably times in which groups of people must be helped, and in these cases there may be circumstances in which only military involvement will produce any sort of real result. In my opinion, the problem is that DEFINING a just war, aligning the idea with a number of principles that must be met, is turning something with many shades of gray into something black and white. Simply meeting all of the principles of a “just war” does not necessarily make a war “just.” That distinction is something that I believe must be inherent in the motivation of the countries involved.

  14. Carolyn Certilman says:

    Also, thank you so much for posting that youtube video. What courage it must have taken for that soldier to stand up and speak his mind so articulately! I agree wholeheartedly that racism is used by our government (and certainly others) as a tool during wartime. Psychologically, a soldier likely needs more than patriotism to be able to risk his or her life to fight for his or her country, particularly when he or she might not even understand the motivation. To this day, many Vietnam War veterans that I know maintain their prejudices almost 40 years later. I believe that without this, it would be very difficult for them to come to terms with their actions during wartime. What a nice world it would be where our veterans did not have to foster beliefs that may directly oppose their overall attitudes in order to cope.

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