A US Doctrine of Vengeance: Who has the right to punish?

Feb 11, 2024
Bible scripture eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth old testament verse

The campaign to ‘punish’ enemies of the USA and Israel shows that states which argue from strength have no wish for justice – merely revenge.

Response? Vengeance? Punishment? Retaliation? Holding to account? Culpability? Justice? Choose your euphemism in the fight against ‘terror’.

Following the death of some US military personnel on the border of Syria and Jordan, President Biden assured a church congregation that the attack would not go unpunished. This remark was obviously intended for domestic consumption. Perhaps he did not want to appear weak as an election approaches, but this attitude is common in the USA.

A culture of vengeance prevails there. Incarceration rates and continuance of the antiquated and abhorrent capital punishment in some States suggest this. Indeed federally executions remain possible for political crimes like treason. This is probably why Donald Trump thought it appropriate to threaten death for a senior military officer.

Vengeance is very much a feature of the Old Testament. It was no surprise when the USA rushed to embrace Israel after the attacks of 7 October. These countries share fundamentalist attitudes which are archaic and barely compatible with democratic ideals of equality and human rights. In this regard they resemble the Islamic fundamentalism they say gives rise to terrorism.

While both countries use rhetoric that dresses the desire for vengeance as a need for justice, New Testament values of forgiveness, humility and compassion are ignored. In Old Testament terms, the lines between justice and vengeance are easily blurred when it is convenient for power brokers to do so. They forget the divine assertion in the Book of Deuteronomy that ‘vengeance is mine’.

Making a speech is a response. But in the jargon, ‘response’ is a euphemism for acts of retaliatory violence. Some observers might understand that ‘responding at a time of our choosing’ suggests first that whatever actions the US takes will have been provoked and so justified, secondly that the timing will suit the US, not the aggressors and thirdly that it will remind everyone that vengeance is a ‘dish best served cold’.

It is informative to remember the US response to the attacks of 9/11. Decision makers were trapped into a response which was predictable and surely anticipated by the terrorists. It might even be thought that the US played into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Then President Bush used the attacks inappropriately as justification for invasion of Iraq, and the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay made a mockery of US claims to value freedom and human rights.

The UN Special Rapporteur on protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ni Aolain, noted that there both terrorism and counter-terrorism create victims and pointed to inadequacies in the US’ approach to rehabilitating prisoners. Indeed President Biden cautioned Israel to learn from US mistakes without being very specific. It is unfortunate that the USA and Israel have undermined the work of the International Court of Justice. This would be the appropriate place for Biden to seek to punish the killers of US military personnel.

Aristotle warned centuries ago that the strong do not need justice. They take what they want and leave talk of real justice to the weak. Gaining justice should depend on the truth of your case, the morality of your position and the legality of your demands. All parties to the pursuit of justice must be regarded as equals. When you can take what you want because of your power, you are unlikely to voluntarily reduce yourself to the status of one amongst equals – unless you genuinely value justice.

The campaign to ‘punish’ enemies of the USA and Israel shows that states which argue from strength have no wish for justice – merely revenge. When the leaders of such countries speak of an international world order, they are being hypocritical. It is a convenient fiction to convince others that multilateralism is important.

In civilised societies, victims are discouraged from vigilantism or taking the law into their own hands. Escalations in attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian residents of the West Bank suggest that the Netanyahu government actively encourages vigilantism. While the US might impose sanctions on some settlers committing violence there, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has freely handed out weapons to settlers.

The best way to handle the rights of victims is to assure them that there are rational, objective processes for punishing perpetrators and that these will be applied without fear or favour. When strong states pursue their own ideas of justice, this undermines attempts to make international law effective.

Soldiers are paid to put their lives on the line. Civilians including aid workers are not, but their deaths do not provoke talk of vengeance. Is it rational to speak of revenge for soldiers who die doing their duty? Or is the insult to the USA uppermost in the minds of the ‘responders’? Given the state of affairs in the Middle East, it is likely that we will see yet another campaign of collective punishment. It might have been highly appropriate that Biden delivered this message in a church. He was preaching to the faithful. The rest of us should regard talk of justice by Israel and the US as cynical propaganda.

Postscript: The US has launched strikes against 85 sites in Iraq and Syria with ‘links to the Iranian military’.

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