Even before the first Israeli victims had been laid to rest, we began hearing voices accusing Israel of war crimes in its response to Hamas’s murderous barbarism. Once again, the international community seems fixated on the “proportionality” of response to the evil of terrorism – in this case, even by “terrorist” standards, the truly unthinkable, including rape, beheadings, kidnapping, burnings, and other forms of barbarism.
As Nave Dromi, director of the Middle East Forum’s Israel office has rightly observed, Israel seems to be the only nation in the world that is never allowed to win a war. But such widespread thinking regarding Israel is nothing other than bald hypocrisy and the height of moral dishonesty.
Let us consider, for a moment, the character of “proportionality,” which is a guiding moral criterion in classic just war thinking. The justice in which proportionality is anchored historically entails rendering that which his due. Because it is non-fluid and universal in its application, justice is committed to punishing and eliminating the evil that threatens. It is both backward-looking (what has occurred) and forward-looking (what may occur in the future). That is, it punishes and it protects; in both cases, it guards the common good and hence represents the cardinal virtue of justice, without which no society can remain civilized.
It is exceedingly difficult today for Westerners to acknowledge the truth behind retributive justice. Punishment of evildoing is part of the justification for going to war, according to just war moral reasoning. Retribution serves the just cause in that it provides vindication for the innocent while at the same time protecting future innocents; it has as its aim a justly ordered peace. Coercive intervention is by nature retributive and vindicatory in nature. Retribution, of course, comes in degrees; it does not reduce to a mere mathematical formula. In its manifestation, it is guided by proportionality to the threat and to the evil needing redress. Its effect, at bottom, is to bring about remorse – that is, a penitence for evildoing – in the hope that those who perpetrated evil will turn from their evil ways. This applies to individuals, it applies to leaders, it applies to networks of terrorism, and it applies to entire nations and terrorist regimes. Retribution in the just war tradition is guided not only by proportionality but also by discrimination. Thereby it is intended for – and aimed at – those responsible for the evil, not an entire population.
Moreover, in the Christian moral tradition, retribution can issue out of charity or neighbor-love, properly understood, even when it can be perverted and distorted by human beings. For the church father St. Augustine, punishment could express charity at three levels: (1) it is charity toward evildoers themselves to prevent or inhibit them from their crimes; (2) it is charity toward society which has been victimized and is watching; and (3) it is charity toward potential evildoers to prevent them from perpetrating evil in the future.
But a question emerges. A common objection, both in criminal justice and in foreign policy, is this: Isn’t retribution merely a pretext for revenge, for the vengeful spirit? That’s a fair question. Clearly, revenge is not rooted in neighbor-love and justice rightly conceived, and the pacifist – or the person who refuses to acknowledge the importance of the retributive element – will argue that because of the human tendency toward vindictiveness, we should not enter into conflict with an adversary. How might we respond?
The Christian moral tradition distinguishes between the retributive act and revenge, between vindication and vindictiveness, in important and unmistakable ways. At its base, the moral outrage expressed through retributive justice is first and foremost rooted in moral principle, not mere emotional outrage and hatred. Augustine, in writing to a Christian friend by the name of Marcellinus who is a public official in Carthage, encouraged him to continue his public service with “benevolent harshness.” Can charity or neighbor-love be firm, forceful, even lethal? Indeed it can, if based on right intention.
If we truly love people, we will insist they be accountable for their actions. Retributive justice, therefore, can be called a “benevolent harshness,” since it forces people to be accountable for their criminal actions. Love and justice are not at odds. It is virtuous and not vicious to feel and express anger at moral evil. Much of the international community at present is unable to act virtuously, that is, to express anger and repulsion at moral evil, and subsequently respond justly.
But in what specific ways do retribution and revenge differ? Several critically important distinctions need emphasis. Whereas revenge strikes out at real or perceived injury, retribution speaks to an objective wrong. Whereas revenge is wild, insatiable and not subject to limitations, retribution has both upper and lower limits, acknowledging the moral repugnance of both assigning draconian punishment to petty crimes (we don’t cut off the hands of children who steal cookies) as well as light punishment to heinous crimes (we don’t slap the wrists of murderers and rapists).
Vengeance, by its nature, has a thirst for injury and delights in bringing further evil upon the offending party. The avenger will not only kill but rape, torture, plunder and burn what is left, deriving satisfaction from the victim’s direct or indirect suffering. (This, of course, is what Russian forces have been doing for the last year and three-quarters in Ukraine.) Augustine condemned this fleshly inclination as a “lust for revenge.” For this reason, C.S. Lewis (who was involved in war in his own lifetime) wrote:
“We may kill [in wartime] if necessary, but we must never hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed.” Lewis concludes: “It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible.”
Retribution, in strong contrast, has as its goal a greater social good and takes no pleasure in punishment. Properly understood, retribution is not some primitive impulse; rather, it issues out of the awareness that human beings have an intrinsic dignity as moral agents. And it is precisely because of this dignity and moral agency – not in spite of it – that we hold fellow humans accountable for their actions.
Finally, revenge, because of its retaliatory mode, will target not the offending party but any who are perceived to be similar. Terrorists operate in this manner, do they not? Retribution, by contrast, is both targeted yet impersonal and impartial, not subject to personal bias. For this reason, Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded. The difference between retribution and revenge is the difference between Romans 12 and 13. In the admonitions of the former, the Apostle forbids taking justice into our own hands (“vigilante justice”); justice is not private. However, in the public sphere and in the hands of governing authorities it is not only permitted, it is divinely instituted by Almighty God. Governing authorities are commissioned by heaven to “bear the sword,” and they do so, says, Paul, “not in vain.”
We in the West have forgotten – if we ever took seriously – the lessons of the Holocaust. Present attitudes, not only among rogue and totalitarian regimes but in the West as well, indicate that “Never again!” has been supplanted by versions of “As you will!” Where is our revulsion? Where is our righteous anger?
Retributive justice, in the end, serves a civilized culture, whether in the domestic or the international context. It isolates individuals, parties or people-groups who endanger the community – whether locally, nationally, or internationally – for their wanton disregard for the common good and a justly ordered peace. It controls or limits the extent to which citizens are victimized by criminal acts. It rewards the perpetrator proportionately with consequences befitting the crime. And it forces both offenders and potential offenders to reflect on the grievous nature of their crimes. Each of these elements applies to both domestic issues and foreign affairs.
Security is the sovereign right of a nation. Tragically, Israel’s sovereignty has never been – and never will be – recognized by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor will it be by rogue regimes such as Iran, which carries out its vile work through proxies, as these days are demonstrating.
Again, we are brought to a point of reckoning. We must answer the disturbing question, What is a “proportionate” response to the unthinkable that has been gleefully perpetrated by terrorist barbarians under the Hamas banner? Justice requires one simple response, and that is to hold evildoers accountable by eliminating their evil, punishing those who perpetrated such evil, and deterring future criminal barbarians from doing similar evil.
A civilized culture which tolerates evil will not remain civilized much longer.