Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John LanganSeptember 09, 2002

Down the street from your house is an unpretentious bungalow. You don’t often see the owner, but when he does appear, he wears a dark suit and dark glasses on even the cloudiest and hottest days. You sometimes notice bulges in his clothing. He rarely speaks or shows much interest in the neighbors. The women of the household are very quiet and subdued. The children occasionally play in their own backyard but never speak to the neighbors. Strangers who dress and act in the style of the man of the house occasionally visit but move on quickly. Other strangers visit but are never seen to emerge from the house. Late at night loud noises and screams are sometimes heard from the house. Swastikas and bloodstains are glimpsed on the very rare occasions when deliverymen or curious neighbors glimpse the interior. Altercations with the neighbors are rare but heated and usually end in sullen silence after the owner issues vague but nasty threats. Trucks carrying chemicals are often parked in front of the house, and large unidentified packages are brought inside. Two Dobermans growl behind the fence, which is topped with razor wire. Smoke comes out of the chimney during a long heat wave. Strange odors emanate from the house and permeate the neighborhood. Rumors are repeated that the man of the house is often seen at a nearby reservoir. Stories circulate that he is a recently released convict with a long history of criminal activity. What are the neighbors to do?


The standard answer in an American suburb is to contact the police, who, if they think the matter should be taken seriously, will investigate the man and the house, obtaining a search warrant if they have reason to believe that a crime has been committed. The police will conduct a search using no more force than is necessary and will arrest the man if they determine that a serious crime has been committed. The man will be tried and, if convicted, imprisoned. The questions about his activities and his purposes that so agitated the neighborhood will be answered in the course of the trial, and the threat he posed will be removed. If the man refuses the search warrant or resists arrest, there may be a difficult interval, perhaps even a siege or a shootout, until overwhelming force is brought in and order is restored. Harm to the neighbors is prevented, and the threat from a dangerous criminal is removed.

Something along these lines seems to be the treatment that President George W. Bush plans for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Advocates of a pre-emptive war against Baghdad argue the need to eliminate a dangerous tyrant who is accumulating weapons of mass destruction, who supports terrorist activity and who has a long record of aggression against his neighbors and cruelty toward his subjects. This goal seems to be in accordance with our sense of justice and with the requirements of prudence in a dangerous world. In the tradition of just war thinking, it constitutes what would be counted as a just cause—defending our country and our ally Israel against the likelihood of an indiscriminate attack using weapons of mass destruction.

The plan can also be argued for within a utilitarian perspective as a way of using force to avert the worst outcomes in a very contentious part of the world, and it can be presented as one way of specifying the demands of Realpolitik. To borrow from our suburban analogy, we can readily agree that the street would be better off if everyone knew what was going on inside the dark house, if the weapons were removed and if the dangerous resident were eliminated. The world would be better off if somebody had the clarity of purpose and the power to see that these things were done. For many people, including, one suspects, the president, that settles the matter. Removing Saddam Hussein should be seen as a service to the international community, to the states next door to Iraq and to the people of Iraq themselves. It should also be seen as a legitimate move to defend the people of Israel and the United States against terrorism.

But there are numerous other issues that this little parable does not bring to our attention, issues that have to be dealt with before we can conclude that a war against Iraq is reasonable and morally justifiable. The American people and their leaders are not being asked to give an up or down vote on Saddam Hussein or even to endorse one proposal for eliminating him. There are other matters about which we have to think as carefully as we can.

First, in the neighborhood story there is a well-defined authority who can investigate the situation and enforce the law once it is determined that the man in the house has violated it. In the case of Iraq, the United Nations can perform these tasks to some extent; but since 1999 Saddam Hussein has refused to cooperate with U.N. inspection teams. Before then he made repeated efforts to frustrate and evade their activity. The Bush administration does not want to turn to the United Nations for working out the further stages of this problem or for authorization to use force against Saddam Hussein. Given the likelihood of a Chinese veto and the reservations many observers have expressed about what we propose to do, it is very doubtful that U.N. authorization for the removal of Saddam Hussein can be obtained.

In the absence of such authorization, efforts to remove him come much closer to a form of vigilante justice, in which considerations of necessity and urgency outweigh the requirements of proper procedure and national sovereignty. Vigilante justice may do the right thing in some cases, but it does not have the stable support that normally results from reliance on orderly procedure and processes, from the inclusion of parties who are not directly involved in the original dispute, from efforts at rational persuasion and from the legal enforcement of norms recognized and consistently affirmed by the relevant community. Vigilante justice or “taking the law into our own hands” always gives rise to questions about whether justice is really being done, precisely because “justice” is being administered by aggrieved and angry parties and because it neglects the need to ensure that justice must be seen to be done. Persuading the international community about the rightness of what we propose to do is not merely a desirable additional feature of policy; it is an essential step in ensuring that what we do serves to establish and maintain a just international order over time.

Second, the parable ends with the removal of the villain from the neighborhood. The scenario is short and happy. Suburban peace can be easily restored by the removal of the “bad guy.” Nothing like this appears in the future of Iraq, which is a country divided by two unresolved civil wars—one with the Kurds in the north, the other with the Shiites in the south. It is not easy to foretell what the balance of power would be between those officials in the present regime who may change sides in a timely fashion and the exiled leaders, many of whom have been out of the country for a long time and who lack well-defined political bases. One of the neighbors, Turkey, is adamantly against enhanced political power for the Kurdish minority; another, Iran, has strong religious sympathies with the Shiite rebels in the south but will be extremely unwilling to accept a U.S.-imposed settlement of the region’s problems.

Third, in the neighborhood situation, clear and well-defined norms determine what people may or may not do in their houses, how they may treat their neighbors and their families and what weapons they may possess. The norms the United States wishes to establish for the possession of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East are not clear. What seems to guide policy is an attitude that accepts the possession of such weapons by people whom we trust (the Israelis) and by people whom we need (the Pakistanis) and which denies them to regimes that we regard as hostile (the Iraqis, the Iranians). But this stance cannot lead to a generally acceptable set of norms, and it is liable to embarrassing shifts when alliances go sour and regimes are overturned.

The withdrawal of the United States from the A.B.M. treaty earlier this year did not produce the crises that some observers had predicted, but it retreats from a regime of fixed norms and broad international consensus for handling the problems created by weapons of mass destruction. The United States awkwardly insists that the problem of weapons of mass destruction is sufficiently urgent to justify overriding national sovereignty by force, even as it refuses to accept any significant limitations on its own sovereignty in this area. The possible negative consequences of the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction and the diffusion of knowledge about how to make and use these weapons are, however, so great and so lasting that a plan that offers a quick solution for one crisis is not worth adopting if it will compound future crises. Is it reasonable for the U.S. government to think that its seizure of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—assuming that this can be carried out in a reliable and expeditious way—will convince all its likely adversaries to renounce all plans for acquiring such weapons? Is it not just as likely to convince them that the acquisition of such weapons must be done in a deniable and concealable fashion?

Fourth, the story about the house in the neighborhood gives us only one side of events. It is told from the standpoint of an outside neighbor looking in. The key question is: what are we (the neighbors) to do? Nothing is said about how things look to the bad man inside the house or other persons in the house who may be confederates or hostages. What options are open to them? What are their plans for fight or for flight? Do they think their rights are being vindicated because they are about to be liberated, or do they think that their rights are being violated because they are about to be overrun by superior force? How much resistance is there likely to be? How persistent and how inventive, how desperate and how effective will it be? Even when one side possesses overwhelming firepower, it is obviously a mistake to regard the other side as an inert body that can be acted on, bombed and reduced to silent and humble acquiescence. How likely are the Iraqi defenders—many of whom may love their country more than they despise Saddam Hussein—to use the weapons of mass destruction they may already have? The bad man in the house may be quite resourceful in clouding issues and delaying action. He may be very effective in persuading the other people in the house of the bad intentions of the outsiders. Furthermore, by combining threats and promises, he may well succeed in inducing irresolution or a split among the neighbors themselves—some may prefer to live with his ominous presence rather than with an unknown and unpredictable new regime next door.

Fifth, the domestic story is told with the assumption that once the bad man in the house is confronted, there is a fairly clear upper limit on the amount of death and destruction that can result. The inhabitants of the house and a small proportion of the attackers are at risk in such a scenario. It is very unlikely that many of the rescuers or attackers will fall under the power of the bad man and his confederates. The surrounding community can for the most part go about its business. But when we are thinking about the invasion of a country like Iraq, we are talking about massive operations in which a great deal can go wrong and about an arena of conflict in which even a side that is vastly superior in resources and technology will find it difficult to maintain constant control over the entire battlefield. Costs and casualties that can be foreseen with some accuracy in the neighborhood situation are much less easy to predict in a complex regional conflict. In the case of Iraq, which has a powerful central government and cohesive military units, such as the Republican Guard, costs and casualties will almost certainly be considerably higher than in Afghanistan or in the Persian Gulf war. Both imperfect targeting by our own forces and fierce resistance by even a fraction of Saddam’s supporters will put at serious risk the lives of those civilians who are innocent of his crimes and whom we claim to be liberating.

For all these reasons, it is fundamentally mistaken to think that changing the regime in Iraq is simply an emergency enforcement of international norms, which will be no more than an episode in the pacification of the Middle East and a step in the stabilization of American hegemony. If we are not seen to be doing justice and if we are not doing justice in a way that is intelligible and plausible to the rest of the world, we will be unable to build a lasting structure of peace that will include reliable means of controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction and ensuring that they are not used.

In the Middle East, what we propose to do will not be plausible unless we are able to present a convincing case for the view that Saddam Hussein is actually on the verge of using weapons of mass destruction. The credibility of such a case will, for obvious psychological and political reasons, depend on whether we are trusted to be working for a just resolution of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Actions that are undertaken for the laudable purpose of defending Israel but that are perceived within the Islamic world as arbitrary injustices, as bloody humiliations and as exercises of power without accountability will ensure that over time new versions of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden will arise. Even when force is necessary and justifiable, it should not be allowed to set the agenda or to define relationships in a crucial part of the world.

Before we attempt to make more specific judgments about whether an attack on Iraq can be considered a just war, we and our potential allies need to achieve some clarity about whether such an attack fits into a coherent plan for the future of the Middle East and for the control of weapons of mass destruction around the world. My own suspicion is that it will be very difficult to show that an attack on Iraq is a good thing without a heavy reliance on wishful thinking and on implausible presumptions about the readiness of the world to applaud American righteousness. Winning such a war may well leave us farther from the long-term goals that really matter—the creation of a just and stable situation in the Middle East and the maintenance of a world order that makes the use of weapons of mass destruction increasingly unlikely. The simplicities of vigilante justice can offer intense but short-lived satisfaction; they are not an appropriate way to achieve lasting goals that are essential to the security of Americans, their allies and the world at large.

Editor’s note: This article won honorable mention from the Catholic Press Association in the best article category.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
15 years 6 months ago
The latest issue on the anniversary of 9/11 is excellent. The articles generally are moving and insightful. But the article by John Langan, S.J., “Should We Attack Iraq?” (9/9) is outstanding. His analogy is brilliant as a teaching device, and he carries off the comparisons in a way that is cogent. I hope that many take his analysis to heart and write to our elected representatives, as I intend to do.

15 years 6 months ago
I want to thank you for the very insightful article by John Langan, S.J., about whether or not we should invade Iraq (9/9). But I wish to offer some points for you to consider. First, the use of the term “vigilante justice” seems to be an oxymoron, based on the question raised about the “justice” being done by the aggrieved and angry party, which implies that it is more likely to be vengeance than justice.

Second, Father Langan seems to imply that if one could prove that the consequences of an invasion of Iraq can be mitigated, then such action might be acceptable. This can never be the case, because the primary consequence of such a unilateral action would be to undermine the rule of law. What makes us different from Iraq? We claim that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons, but we have more weapons than any other nation on earth. Isn’t our willingness to restrain our power and abide by international law the very essence of the difference between us and Iraq? Wouldn’t a unilateral invasion of Iraq destroy that difference? Wouldn’t it make us the most dangerous rogue nation in the world? If we got away with such an invasion, what would convince other countries that we can be trusted to restrain our power in the future?

Even if we are able to gain support from other countries in the region, wouldn’t a pre-emptive strike undermine the just war principles? The author chose to defer consideration of the just war principles until after all can agree that the goals for the region would not be hampered by an invasion of Iraq. That is a mistake. While I have serious reservations about the just war principles (to some extent because I do not believe that the church ever applies them honestly or in a timely manner), I believe it is a mistake to wait until after everyone agrees that a war is necessary to bring up the moral principles that should instruct such decisions. Once everyone believes that war is necessary, there is great pressure to bend the just war principles to conform to that belief.

Many are looking at the issue of war with Iraq in simplistic terms. Evil must be resisted. Your article has done much to remove the blinders from people’s eyes so that they can see the complexity of what they contemplate. But it does not challenge them to see the ultimate truth. If evil is to be resisted, why aren’t we resisting war itself? The just war principles give us permission to use evil to attain justice and security. But what good is justice and security when we have embraced evil?

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Heather Trotta
Heather TrottaAugust 12, 2022
A Reflection for Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time, by Kevin Clarke
Kevin ClarkeAugust 12, 2022
Susan (Lydia Gaston) and Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) in "Easter Sunday." (Universal Pictures.)
I decided that the best way to gauge reactions to the film was to gather feedback from none other than my own Filipino-American family.
Melissa EnajeAugust 12, 2022
Listening to, and seeing, the other are always important. Because no one is really the other. Nothing separates us, because we are the same.
Annie KennedyAugust 12, 2022