Columnists > Voices

Just misunderstanding justice

We lack the shared vocabulary even to have a debate over war with Iraq

Issue: "Portable Pentagon," March 1, 2003

I had just met Maria Yederer-and already she was angry at me, and spitting out her words. "What do you mean-just war? How can you trivialize it like that? How can you make light of it like that? How can you possibly use a term like just war?"

We were standing in a light drizzle near the base of the Space Needle just a few blocks north of downtown Seattle. A big Saturday afternoon anti-war rally was just breaking up, and somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 demonstrators (it depends whether you asked the Seattle police or the organizers of the event) were beginning to head home. But here and there, you could see some vigorous discussions underway. More than a few supporters of a war in Iraq were mixing it up with the demonstrators; you could locate the supporters quickly, because they tended to be carrying oversized American flags, which were getting a little soggy. I saw no pushing or shoving in either direction. Today, in Seattle, it was just a war of words.

But it was a war, and right now I couldn't believe how profoundly a simple misunderstanding was inhibiting our ability to communicate. Clearly, neither Maria nor her three companions (all students at the University of Washington) had ever heard of the concept of a "just war." To them, the term "just war" was so novel an idea that they literally believed I was saying a war with Iraq was an inconsequential matter-minor, slight, and trifling-as in "not a serious accident, but just a fender bender." Or even, as in "not a real war, but just a heated discussion."

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So yes, our heated discussion in Seattle was warmed up first of all because of a simple misunderstanding-which, incidentally, we never cleared up. But the misunderstanding itself was not trivial. It was based on much more important issues. One of those important matters was that here were four young Americans, all well spoken and apparently quite intelligent, all the products of American education and now enrolled at a university with a good reputation-and not one of them was even passingly acquainted with something that for years has been referred to by philosophers, political theorists, and religious leaders as "just-war theory."

I learned this about Maria and her friends with a few simple questions. "I'm curious," I had asked them up front, "about what has shaped your opposition to the war in Iraq. Is this something you've discussed together over the months? Something that comes from your studies? Something shaped, perhaps, by friendship with some Muslims you know?" The conversation was casual, vigorous, and respectful-up until my question about "just war." "Is there ever a place for war?" I had asked. "Are there any conditions under which you think President Bush might properly say to the American people, 'This is a legitimate war-it meets the historic criteria for what we have always called just war.'"

That was too much for Maria and her friends. They simply didn't have ears to hear. All their prejudices flooded out. Here was an old duffer, I'm sure they thought, who couldn't wait to bomb the daylights out of Baghdad. I was a warmonger, and to me all violence was insignificant. Nor would they discuss the matter further with someone as unreasonable as I had proved to be; they wandered on down the street, rolling their eyes and thrusting their arms into the air in frustration.

It is possible, of course, to oppose going to war with Saddam Hussein in the next few days and to base that opposition very precisely on a more thorough understanding of the just-war theory than I will ever pretend to have. Nor do I know for sure how typical of the whole group was the remarkable ignorance of the foursome I chatted with.

What I do know for sure is that most of the opposition to the war is woven of roughly the same frayed intellectual yarn as that offered by Maria and her friends. When Sen. Tom Daschle summarizes his opposition with the astute observation that "duct tape is no substitute for sound policy"-but offers no policy of his own-you might as well be leaving national issues to a few undergrads on their way home from a protest rally.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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