Column: At which point does justice require intervention?

Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

by Michael Schuttloffel

Seemingly forgotten these days is the not insignificant fact that this country almost went to war only five months ago.

In early September 2013, an attack by the United States on Syria, in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, appeared imminent. In the end, it didn’t happen. And while the Obama administration’s handling of the situation did not exactly cover the nation in glory, it did, if only for a moment, stimulate a needed conversation about armed intervention into humanitarian crises.

The 20th century saw a quantum leap in the destructive power of military weaponry, which multiplied exponentially the horrors and carnage of war. Today, continuing advances in military technology — like the U.S. Prompt Global Strike program, which is developing hypersonic weapons able to attack any location on Earth within an hour – raise the chilling specter of more killing accomplished in ever more terrifying fashion, with ever less “skin in the game” on the part of civilian populations that might restrain policymakers’ delusions of grandeur.

Yet the revolution in military technology also holds out the tantalizing prospect of being able to thwart evil while minimizing civilian casualties.

On the other side of Asia from Syria, 31-year- old Kim Jong-un rules over the largest gulag on Earth, North Korea. The stories that have emerged from that dark place beggar the imagination: hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, dead from famine during the 1990s; hundreds of thousands imprisoned in massive work camps where conditions approximate Dante’s ninth circle of hell. Even children are not spared the starvation, rape, torture and murder that is the lot of those not worked to death.

As you read these words, the people of North Korea are suffering torments that the civilized world simply should not be able to accept. If the geopolitical and technological landscapes were someday to change such that intervention became feasible, would it be just? If not, under what circumstances can military intervention ever be just? How bad must things be? If Hitler had been otherwise peaceable, would an invasion of Germany to stop the Holocaust have been just? Is there a point at which it becomes unjust not to intervene?

In a world of nanotechnology and cyberwarfare, and terrorist organizations operating in ungoverned spaces, the application of just war principles is only going to become more complicated. Accordingly, the moral reasoning necessary to make wise and just decisions cannot be postponed until after the crisis is at hand.

Deep thinking about these challenging questions is needed. It should proceed with a strong presumption for peace, and with a mind to, and a heart for, the two simple words emblazoned on a stone memorial at Dachau: NEVER AGAIN.

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