I’m not going to weigh in on the latest incarnation of the Israeli-Arab conflict – everyone’s opinion about who is right and who is wrong is set in stone anyway – except to say that I found the constant use of the term “proportionate” to be quite interesting.
First, because very few people would advocate “proportionate responses” in non-military situations. Consider, for instance, Bernie Madoff. As I understand it, the man is in house arrest and many people wonder why he isn’t already in jail. However, putting Madoff in jail would not be proportionate – there is no indication that he imprisoned or otherwise directly interfered with anyone’s freedom of movement.
The reason it is important to imprison someone like Madoff, if he is indeed guilty of the offenses alleged (and admitted) is to prevent these offenses (and worse) from being committed again. Proportionate responses do not have a deterrent effect. We (through the state) could collectively seize all of Madoff’s assets, but that wouldn’t even deter Madoff from trying again, much less anyone else.
On the other hand, if police officers were allowed and encouraged to routinely shoot one out of every two people caught driving faster than the posted speed limit, and the odds of getting caught any time you were speeding rose to one in two, the average speed on the freeways would drop quite a bit. (Note – the issue of what level of response is needed to achieve a deterring effect is a different question than whether that level of response is worth applying to achieve that effect.)
Second, there is the issue of intent. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda clearly would like to kill us (i.e., and here, “us” amounts to “the West”) all. Every one of us. The fact that they only succeeded in killing a small fraction of us doesn’t mean that in combating Al Qaeda, the West only has the right to go after a small fraction of them. Incompetence is not a defense… and incompetents can succeed at their goals if given enough bites at the apple.
Third, a proportionate response often doesn’t exist. If Osama manages to get his hands on a bomb and next time around nukes New York, what is a proportionate response? His entire organization doesn’t have as many people in it as would have been killed in such an attack. Of course, if you include his fellow travelers, supporters (financial, material, and otherwise), and plain old well-wishers, you could easily end up with far more than enough people for a “proportionate response.” But is it proportionate to go after say, citizens of countries that are purportedly allies of ours who happily send money to Osama knowing full well that if he could, he’d nuke New York. Is it proportional to go after people who only provided money or material support without knowing precisely that it would be used to nuke New York? Perhaps not, but not doing so guarantees what you’re trying to avoid would happen again.