Syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell, whose writings are published regularly on our local newspaper's opinion page, made several statements in a recent column which demand a reply. He opened the column by railing against American officials quoted in a New York Times article who stated that there would be a “proportional response” to any North Korean attack. Calling it a “clever new notion,” Sowell made clear his contempt for the idea that a military response should be proportional to the original attack rather than massive and overwhelming.
Clearly Sowell knows nothing of military ethics nor of history. One of the earliest attempts at codifying proportional response to injury can be found in the code of Hammurabi, a Mesopotamian king who ruled the Babylonian Empire during the 18th century B.C.E. Part of that code is popularly summarized as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” While that sounds harsh today, the purpose was to restrict vengeance to the equivalent of the original injury. If a member of Clan A destroys the eye of a member of Clan B, then Clan B may demand the same in punishment. They may not attack and slaughter half a dozen members of Clan A as a revenge for the loss of one eye.
The Just War Theory, set forth first by the Roman statesman Cicero, developed both by religious and by secular philosophers through the centuries, and taught today to our military leaders as a basis for ethical conduct, has as one of its tenets: “The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.” Proportionality of response also is central to compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention, which addresses the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
Though it can be argued convincingly that the practices of modern warfare regularly violate both Just War Theory and the Geneva Conventions, the United States continues to hold both protocols in positive regard and, at least in theory, attempts to govern its actions accordingly. To do otherwise would be to consciously remove ourselves from the company of civilized nations. The statements to which Sowell so vehemently objects are simply affirmations that the United States intends to conduct itself in accordance with generally accepted international ethical standards.
There is no question that North Korea itself refuses to abide by any international standards. Its leadership is unpredictable and seemingly at times irrational. What Sowell appears to be arguing is that these facts relieve the U.S. of any obligation to act ethically in response. He urges us to descend quickly into barbarism should North Korea turn its belligerent words into actions. Consideration of the resulting carnage among an already malnourished and suffering populace seems not to be something that troubles him. It troubles me deeply, however. We are a large and powerful nation, and we still retain something of a collective conscience. We should be able to figure out an appropriate response that does not involve tossing out all ethical behavior.
Even more troubling is Sowell’s misuse of scripture. Twice he quotes Jesus’ words as found in Matthew 7:20, “… by their fruits ye shall know them,” identifying them only as an “ancient adage.” Now, I have no idea whether or not Sowell is Christian or has had any experience of reading Christian scripture. Perhaps indeed he is ignorant of the origin of these words, and truly believes them to be simply an “ancient adage” comparable to the sayings found in Aesop’s Fables or Poor Richard’s Almanack. If so, he is at the very least guilty of journalistic laziness.
A Google search of the sentence turns up over 500 thousand references in 0.27 seconds. And a few minutes of reading would have revealed to him the setting and context in which they were made. Either Sowell was so lacking in curiosity about the true meaning of the words which he planned to quote that he failed to do even this minimal research, or he deliberately obscured his source, hoping perhaps that his readers would not notice or care about the reprehensible use to which he was putting part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
To clarify, Jesus is warning his followers about those who would mislead them. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits…. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-16a, 18) Paul elaborates on this warning in his letter to the church at Galatia, listing among the bad fruit, which he calls “works of the flesh,” “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions…” (Galatians 5:20b) Then he enumerates the good fruit of the Spirit: “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a)
Twisting this to suit his own purposes, Sowell writes, “There was a time when we followed the ancient adage ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ The track record of massive retaliation easily beats that of the more sophisticated-sounding proportional response.” It is clear as he goes on that the fruits he values are precisely those bad fruits of enmities, strife, and anger about which both Jesus and Paul have warned us.
For any Christian the choice should be clear; Sowell’s arguments for massive retaliation must be rejected as totally contrary to the teachings of Christ. For non-Christians who respect ethical behavior and international law, there are excellent secular reasons for rejecting his arguments as well. We must indeed beware of false prophets who would lead us down the path of savagery and destruction.