Imagine: You awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of piercing sirens. Suddenly the ceiling comes crashing down. You are trapped under rubble, bones broken, joints popped from sockets. Blood pours down your face from the gash on your head. Children are shrieking in the next room. The bombs continue to fall; your head begins to throb. You don’t know how much longer you have to live or if you’ll ever see your family again.
I presume that you need no further information to answer this question. You have been wronged. Regardless of your political affiliations, regardless of where you happen to live, regardless of who you are, you have been wronged. Even if you were a convicted felon, guilty of a heinous crime, the above treatment would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” prohibited by law. Yet, according to just war theorists, whether or not you have been wronged is supposed to be a function of the past actions of another person altogether, your leader. If your leader is a criminal, then you are “collateral damage,” regrettable but unavoidable. If your leader has committed no crimes against humanity, then you have been unjustly attacked, unjustly terrorized, and unjustly harmed.
Let us make the case a bit more detailed. You voted for the opposition. Your candidate did not win the most recent election. The winner went on to abuse power and commit crimes. Are you responsible, in any sense, for the crimes committed by your leader, whom you never supported in any way whatsoever? Are you any less the victim of an unjust attack than are the people unlucky enough to have been on board an airplane hijacked by fanatics?
We could make the case more controversial and complex. You voted for your leader, whom you believed at the time to be a person of integrity and moral vision. You were wrong. Your leader victimized innocent people and abused his power to achieve personal ends. Despite these facts, have you not still been wronged?
Of course some inhabitants of nations led by criminals support their government. So let us consider this possibility too: You voted for and continue to support the government in power. Your leader carefully explained to you and your compatriots that national self-interest and honor mandated the invasion of territories that had been unjustly appropriated by “The Evil Enemy.” You never heard any other version of the story. Does being brutally attacked by your leader’s enemies have any more tangible effect than to strengthen your belief in the lies of your leader?
The options are simple: Either you support or once supported the regime in power or you do not and never did. (Children always fall into the latter category.) But your personal attitude toward your own government does not seem to be particularly relevant in determining culpability for the unfortunate circumstances...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.