Shortsighted Retribution


Proponents of retribution often overlook key aspects of their theory, as does Ms. Hartline in her article “Retribution is Right.” The principle of “an eye for an eye” is a bit more complex than she indicates and achieving proportionality is decidedly more difficult.

If the U.S. response is justifed purely by retribution, then perfect parity will be achieved after the United States and various allies kill over 6,000 innocent Afghani civilians. Such a bloodthirsty call hardly appears to be civilized, though by definition, it would achieve “an eye for an eye” and a “life for a life.”

However, if the U.S. kills more innocent Afghanis or other Muslims than the number of Americans who died in the attacks, then the Afghanis or other Muslims would be justified killing additional innocent Americans. Since both sides typically try to come out ahead, they will not stop slaughtering the innocent once they reach balance, but rather, they will escalate the conflict. Such is the absurdity of the principle of retribution in practice.

Ms. Hartline rejects this doctrine herself by focusing on two distinct objectives: “punishing the guilty” and “preventing future attacks.” There can be no problem with punishing the guilty, and if some use of force is necessary to bring the guilty to justice, then so it must be. Regarding prevention of attacks, the surest way of preventing future attacks is to execute your enemy completely, his family members, and any possible friends or allies. Again, this is hardly a civilized approach. The next surest way is to turn your enemy into your friend, but this involves an investment of resources that no American leader seems to be contemplating.

Nothing fills me with greater sorrow than the thought that the blood of the innocent might be shed for nothing, whether those innocent people be Americans, Rwandans, Bosnians, or any other people in the world. But to say that we recover our losses by killing others–this is to mock our own dead, to trample upon anything that they might have stood for and to place ourselves in the role of the Great Judge. Let us seek justice in this world as best we may and admit no lesser causes in our response to the atrocities of September 11.

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