Paul Richardson looks at the theory and practice of a ‘just war’

On Remembrance Sunday we recall the cost of war, the lives sacrificed in two world wars and in many other operations from Korea to peacekeeping in Northern Ireland. Wars come in many different forms. Most of us probably think of the war between sovereign states as the norm but in second half of the twentieth century a number of new types of warfare began to appear. First, there were revolutionary struggles by guerrilla armies such as those that eventually forced first the French and then the Americans to leave Vietnam. Then, towards the end of the century, two other types of conflict became significant. Terrorist groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, and the IRA in Ireland launched campaigns that claimed many innocent lives. In a large number of African states and in the Balkans, the virtual collapse of central government led to civil wars in which discontented elements played on ethnic rivalry or religious division to stir up conflict.

Religion and terrorism

Often ethnic and religious strife and terrorism have gone hand in hand. Black-market businessmen, drug dealers, or disillusioned young members of the middle class who have failed to satisfy their aspirations have used tribal jealousy or religious divisions to gain support in launching a civil war or a terrorist campaign. No longer does communism or political ideology motivate people to take up violence; now they are influenced by religious fundamentalism or by a desire to protect their identity and culture. In much of the Islamic world and elsewhere as well, the West arouses both fascination and revulsion. People resent the wealth of America and fear Western cultural dominance while being attracted by freedom and other aspects of the American lifestyle. Before the revolution, Dallas was the most popular TV programme in Teheran.

Between 1968 and 1989, 35,150 acts of international and domestic terrorism were recorded in the world. That is a rate of 1,673 attacks a year. Between 1990 and 1996 the number recorded by the Rand-St Andrews chronology of International Terrorism shot up to 30,725, or 4,389 a year – an increase of one hundred and sixty-two percent on the Cold War years. An article in the October issue of the Chatham House journal The World Today estimates the percentage increase at the present time as closer to two hundred per cent.

An unfortunate feature of many terrorist attacks that cannot be ignored is their religious motivation. In 1980 the US State Department list of dangerous terrorist groups contained few inspired by religion. By 1990 when Secretary of State Madeline Albright named the 30 most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, half of them were religious.

It is not just Muslim extremists who have turned to violence. Anti-abortionists have murdered and bombed clinics in the US, a Jewish fanatic killed 30 Muslims in a Mosque in Jerusalem in1994, Buddhist monks have been ready to approve Singhalese violence, and militant Hindus have stirred up conflict in India.

Inevitably, Richard Dawkins, Matthew Parris, Polly Toynbee and other well-know sceptics have been active in the media claiming that religion is menace to public safely. A more balanced assessment of the situation is offered by Mark Juergenmeyer in his study of religious violence, Terror in the Mind of God.

Fight the good fight

Juergenmeyer points out that many of the world’s religions speak in terms of a cosmic struggle between the powers of good and evil, a battle to bring order and peace out of chaos and darkness. Usually, this is interpreted in a purely spiritual way but, under certain circumstances, the clash between the forces of darkness and light can be understood not as a sacred struggle but as a real fight taking place on the earth.

Juergenmeyer suggests characteristics that lead to a conflict being interpreted in this way: (i) the struggle is perceived as a defence of basic identity; (ii) defeat is unthinkable; (iii) there seems little hope of achieving victory by purely human or political means. When any of these conditions are present, a real-world struggle can be conceived as a sacred war and enemies are demonized so that America, for example, becomes the Great Satan.

Perhaps a different way of making the same point is to say that with the collapse of communism religion has become a focus for hope on the part of the bitter, disillusioned and impoverished peoples of the world.

In order to overcome terrorism we need to consider both ways to counter the immediate threat and the long-term measures likely to remove the discontent out of which it has grown. Both long-term and short-term measures are important.

Just War

The Catholic tradition has taught that a ‘just war’ is possible under stringent conditions. War must be declared by a legitimate authority, it must be in a just cause, be undertaken as a last resort, have reasonable hope of success, and be directed to a lasting peace. Wars undertaken for revenge or territorial gain are ruled out. Non-combatants are supposed to be spared and under no circumstances should they be directly attacked. A war should be undertaken without gratuitous or needless destruction.

Such conditions would seem to allow any sovereign state to take direct action in response to a terrorist attack, to punish those who are responsible and ensure that no further terrorist outburst occurs. In the modern world it is difficult to take action of such nature without some civilian casualties taking place. What is ruled out is that these civilian casualties be directly intended. States that aid or abet terrorists or give them shelter are clearly justified targets but not their citizens who may have no choice but to accept the will of a despotic regime. It is morally and legally justifiable to invade the territory of such a state in order to punish the rulers and track down the terrorists but not to endanger innocent lives. The distinguished Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, is famous for her criticism of Harry Truman for authorizing the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, but in one of her essays she accepted the right of the Romans to attack Britain because the Druids nurtured terrorists who attacked northern Gaul.


The moral requirement that any attack on terrorism be proportionate and carefully targetted makes tactical and political sense. By following the rule of law and observing conditions for a Just War, a nation engaged on a campaign against terrorism demonstrates its subscription to moral values and makes it more difficult for the terrorists to portray it as a satanic enemy. It is fatal to attempt to fight terrorism with its own weapons. In an age when terrorism has assumed global dimensions and few campaigns are restricted to one country, it also makes it less likely that the terrorists will be able to call on increased financial supporters or make more military recruits. This is particularly important in dealing with Islamic terrorists who attempt to appeal to the umma or brotherhood of all Muslims under Allah. Successful anti-terrorism depends on good intelligence work and it is vital to be able to recruit agents from groups that are ethnically and culturally close to the terrorists.

In the crisis caused by the bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, critics of US and UK policy have argued that unilateral Western action should give way to action by the UN and that Osama Bin Laden and other accused persons should be tried before an international court. Some people have argued that the evidence so far produced against him would not carry conviction in such a court. America has sought broad international support for its actions and can claim to point to a UN Security Council resolution condemning the September bombings as ‘a threat to international peace and security’, but there is real merit in the suggestion that terrorists should be tried in an international court such as is happening in the case of those accused of war crimes in the Balkans. The impossibility of cautioning and interviewing someone like Mr Bin Laden before capture means that American and British forces are justified in taking action even if there is only a very strong presumption of his guilt rather than clear and irrefutable evidence. That may only emerge after his capture and is a strong reason for trying to take him alive.

One factor that needs to be born in mind in considering terrorism is the very high toll in civilian casualties it has caused. In 1900 the ratio of military to civilian casualties was 8 to 1. By 2000 it had be almost exactly reversed and stood at 1 to 8. According to the Rand-St Andrews survey, 50,000 people died in terrorist attacks between 1900 and 1996. We cannot afford to ignore a problem of this magnitude.

Economic factors

Ultimately, we will only put an end to terrorism by removing the conditions that encourage it. A peaceful and just solution to the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians is crucial. As one commentator in the Financial Times has pointed out, the average annual income of people living in a historic belt of Islamic countries from Morocco to Bangladesh is $3,700. In the US, the figure is $34,260. We need to find more effective ways to encourage development in the poorer nations of the world and to help those ‘failed states’ that rapidly become breeding grounds for terrorism. But progress on these and other significant issues will not be easy. We must be realistic about what can be achieved. As well as an economic gulf, there is also a great cultural gap between the secular, pluralist West and much of the rest of the world. Too often when we talk about human rights we appear insincere and inconsistent, prepared to condemn the Taliban in Afghanistan but willing to uphold repressive, oil-rich states in the Arab world. Somehow we have to learn to combine a readiness to defend such basic human rights as freedom from torture, genocide or arbitrary arrest with consistency of judgment and sensitivity to local culture. We may be global citizens but we also have tribal souls. The stories, traditions and faiths that shape our lives are important and deserving of respect.

A theologian for the times

A theologian our Prime Minister and other Western leaders should study at the present time is Reinhold Niebuhr. Observing the US struggle against communism, Niebuhr was conscious of the way in which self-interest can infect even policies that are devised to promote righteous objectives. ‘No modern nation’, he wrote, ‘can ever quite make up its mind whether to insist that its struggle is a fight for survival or a selfless effort to maintain transcendent and universal values.’

However pure its aims, a campaign to rid the world of terrorism and build a new moral order and a global community is just as likely to be corrupted by self-interest as any other human project. As Niebuhr would doubtless remind us if he were still alive today, we need constantly to be assessing our actions in the light of our faith in a God of justice and love.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.

NB This article was written as the US and the UK began operations against Afghanistan on Sunday October 7th.