"Political freedom is not an absolute but a contextual conclusion that flows from the virtue of self-defense. This conclusion changes in wartime." Amber Pawlik



Amber Pawlik

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The Virtue of Self-Defense

After September 11, some Objectivists wrote that it is defensible to kill innocents during war time; a position of which received backlash. One person told me, "Objectivism is about absolutes. It applies its principles consistently. Objectivism rejects killing innocents therefore, in war-time, it must still apply."

First of all, anyone who thinks Objectivism is about wholesale “absolutes” has no understanding of Objectivism whatsoever. There are few “absolutes” in Objectivism. Ayn Rand wrote that Objectivism is "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (emphasis mine). The lady who coined the term “best of premises” is hardly an advocate of “absolutes.”

All political conclusions in Objectivism are contextual in nature, not absolute. This is to say they logically flow from a set of premises. Freedom (from physical force) is a contextual political conclusion based on specific unwavering principles. The unwavering principle it rests on is the virtue of selfishness. The Objectivist morality states that man has the right to pursue what makes him happy and what will aid his life. From this, political conclusions are derived. A properly designed government rests on an “if" statement: "If … man is to survive, then … he must have freedom." A free man is left to think and produce, thus creating prosperity. This is the heart and soul of freedom. The practical application of it has been more than successful, for an example, see the success of America.

In war time, the virtue of selfishness still applies. A man still has an unwavering right to life. But the conditions under which he must survive change. The "If" statement during war-time changes to "If man is to survive, then … he must eradicate all threats to his life." Because man is now under a threat, as he is in war, the virtue of selfishness dictates that he has the uninhibited right to self-defense. Anyone who has a shred of desire to live will, when faced with a threat, go to battle with whoever is threatening his life.

The virtue of self-defense always—and only—applies when someone has you under a threat. If a thug has a gun to your head and says, "Kill this person or I kill you,” you have full right to kill who you must to save yourself. The thug left you two options: life or death. Objectivism advocates that you be allowed to choose life. The thug is responsible, not you.

When America was attacked on 9-11, that gave her full moral right to do whatever she had to in America’s defense. America's goal is to win the war. If, in the pursuit of eradicating threats to our country, innocents are killed while pursuing the enemy, it is the terrorists who are to blame.

As noted, self-defense always but only applies when someone has you under a threat. A person’s only moral right is to remove that threat, whatever means necessary; a goal which should be pursued quickly and with laser-like focus. War, however, is not an exact science. If there is accidental loss, it is unfortunate, but should not stop the pursuit of the enemy. Once the threat is removed, a goal of which ideally happens quickly, peace can return.

This position, however, cannot be left at just this. If the guiding moral compass has these two goals, in order of importance, 1) remove the enemy and 2) have as little loss to your side as possible … the wanton use of nuclear bombs starts to seem ideal. This is a horrifying position that should be shunned. Clearly, more moral guidance is needed on this issue.

I propose that, even under those circumstances when freedom from physical coercion can be morally abridged, the principles of objectivity and reason must still apply and govern policy. This article will discuss two such scenarios: one, the issue of innocents during war time, and two, the appropriate times which civil liberties can be abridged for the sake of national security.

The issue of innocents in war really should be almost common sense. The only reason why there is a focus on innocents in war is because this is the very grisliest part of war that everyone agrees is unfortunate. The people focused on it are ones who are anti-war and want to demoralize a country about war. Advanced weaponry has made it more and more possible to kill precisely the enemy and not innocents. According to fas.org, "In 1944, it took 108 B-17s dropping 648 bombs to destroy a point target. In Vietnam, similar targets required 176 bombs. Now, a few precision guided munitions (PGM) can do the job." Despite the amazingly precise capabilities of the U.S. military, which no doubt minimize loss of life and damage, anti-war peaceniks bring up this issue, over and over. They do it for the reason to try to demoralize a country.

While the manipulative anti-war peacenik’s insistence on laying moral guilt at our military’s feet is wrong, the reaction should not be “to hell with innocents!”  Instead, just call it for what it is: a pathetic and egregiously evil attempt to demoralize our military.

To bring more precise clarity to the issue, when one thinks of the wanton use of nuclear bombs, the moral issues involved start to become clearer. Two issues come to mind: the horrifyingly large scale loss of life and the possibility for retaliation, escalating the conflict and causing an even larger scale loss of life. As such, I propose there should be a third moral goal (or an augmentation to the first goal) in guiding military policy, which is the minimization of killing innocent life. The goal should be to kill precisely the enemy and nothing else. A policy that has complete disregard for innocent life or outright advocates targeting innocent life is both unethical and ineffective.

One thing that needs clarity brought to it is the moral status of innocent civilians. On one hand, they seem to be regarded as “gee golly gosh good” regular people with families and jobs and are surely good-hearted people. On the other end are people who say their silence equates to agreement with a dictatorial government and thus all civilians are deserving of the same death as their dictatorial leaders. It is clear a person's moral evaluation of innocents will affect how they treat them in wartime.

Neither position—assuming the people are gee golly gosh good people or damnable for their silence—are appropriate without evidence. As far the notion that they are surely good-hearted people, it’s hard to regard many of the civilians in some Muslim countries as good-hearted people after they came to the streets and celebrated on 9/11. At the same time, there are some very good people in Muslim countries who are oppressed by their leaders and are more desirous to see their own dictatorial government topple than I am. An example of this is the Iranian student dissidents.

Silence should be taken as just that: silence. A silent person should not be branded as morally good or bad. Unarmed civilians should not be regarded as an automatic friend or enemy. They should be regarded as neutral. And, if they are opposed to the dictatorial government, they can prove to be an invaluable ally. People should always be treated as what they are. To treat enemies as innocent or innocents as enemies is to beg for negative consequences or missed opportunities.

Not only is actively targeting innocents morally wrong, targeting or carelessly treating innocents in wartime does not make for effective military strategy. Military leaders agree. Sun Tzu, author of Art of War:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.

A good military strategy is clever, stealthy, and focused. The best of all policies is, if possible, to not fight at all. A policy that is careless or boorish about innocents is essentially one of “slaughter them all,” a policy of which is ultimately ineffective. Sun Tzu again:

The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains un-taken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

A military policy that is boorish about innocents and seeks to kill them or is so heavy-handed, it will kill the enemy and also many more people, is a waste of resources, taxing on a military, and as such, ineffective. Killing innocents does nothing to break the actual enemy. It wastes resources, kills men on your own side needlessly, and demoralizes your own side.

A very persuasive argument against a “slaughter them all” policy, in my opinion, is the position it puts soldiers in. Soldiers sign up for military service to kill the bad guy and protect the good guy. Asking the soldier to raze a city without regard to human life puts the soldier in a very unenviable position. It is likely to mentally scar him or her for life. There was a TV special on the B-2 bomber recently. In interviewing one of the pilots, he said they never train while carrying nuclear weapons for safety reasons and it would be the worst mission possible to be asked to carry and drop nuclear bombs on a live mission. Ask yourself how this pilot, surely one of America's finest and bravest, would think this.

As far as displaying force, Sun Tzu writes that war is about deception. When strong, pretend you are weak. When organized, feign chaos. “Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.” As such, a war is won by actually breaking an enemy not with a display of force, which is sometimes the argument for a heavy-handed military policy. The U.S. military does not have to actively try to shock and awe. An F/A-18 roaring overhead on any mission whatsoever is enough.

To summarize and give a concrete example of healthy self-defense, I give the example of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan during World War II. First, although some think that the bombs were wantonly dropped on cities, they were not. They were dropped on valid military targets. However, given the area of destruction of the bombs, it was inevitable that innocent civilians would die. U.S. leaders decided to drop the bombs. Preventing civilian death was not considered a reason to cower the U.S. into inaction. In the end, more lives were saved than lost. After those bombs dropped, the war quickly came to an end, and thus there was an end to the killing, the most desirable outcome of all. This is how war should be waged: as quickly as possible, with devastating, laser-like focus designed to break the enemy and a return to peace as soon as possible. To this day, Japan has remained non-aggressive. I believe this is a success story.

One thing about World War II is that it was difficult to plan the mission to drop the nuclear bomb. Not only was there the task of building and testing a bomb, there were no bombers that could fly on such a long mission as to penetrate deep within the belly of Imperialist Japan. Diligent engineers worked hard to make this a reality. At no point was the devastating might that they were developing taken for granted.

I worry now however that the sentiment seems to be, "America is so strong! It can take out anyone anywhere!" said by people who ask America to do the world's bidding and to take out any perceived enemy. It should be said: war is taxing. No matter how big or small the military is and no matter how big or small the threat is, there is a cost in blood and money to war. What I am asking is for people to be somber about advocating the use of military force … especially by people who have never served. If you want the military to do the world's bidding, I would ask you to first sign my pledge. In my opinion, a military should be kept robust, trained--and mostly unused.

Finally, Ayn Rand on war:

World War I led, not to "democracy," but to the creation of three dictatorships: Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany. World War II led, not to "Four Freedoms," but to the surrender of one-third of the world's population into communist slavery.

I would add to that: and now, after several wars in the Middle East, many totalitarian Islamist dictatorships are rising.

Certainly, war is necessary, and I definitely think it was necessary to stop Hitler and to stop al Qaeda. But consider the wake war leaves. Consider how war is waged and what happens after war that can be improved. Consider what some more clever solutions may be instead of or in augmentation to the use of military force: attacks by stratagem.

I want to end by saying that the American military has been absolutely top notch in maintaining a military that is robust, trained, courageous and able to defeat enemies while at the same time being respectful to human life.

Another situation of contextual liberty is the debate of civil rights versus national security. Again, this issue must be put into context.

As a general rule, as a matter of national security, it is permissible to violate civil rights but we should be damn slow to do so.

A person’s right to not get blown up in a terrorist attack has higher priority than a nuisance civil rights violation. Adam Smith, one of the greatest free market thinkers of all time, says a similar thing. He says there are only two reasons to inhibit freedom. The first is that by inhibiting freedom temporarily, you may secure freedom in the long run. An example is putting a ban in importation on one country in order to pressure them to lift a ban on importation on your country. The second reason is if it is in the interest of national defense to inhibit liberty. “Defense” wrote Smith, “is superior to opulence.” (Note also that this statement underscores the real underlying purpose of liberty: progress, i.e. “opulence,” which is an argument in favor of the virtue of selfishness.)

With that said however, a country should be very slow to inhibit freedom in the name of national security. There needs to be a very clear objective threat to the country that requires an abridgement of freedom. Anything else is a slippery slope to dictatorship. Unfortunately, immediately after an attack, people often get spun up emotionally and will let almost anything pass. Objective rules should be laid out for when freedom can be abridged for security reasons.

First, a requirement must be laid down. A simple and obvious requirement is “Reduce or eliminate the number of terrorist attacks.” Then when a policy is put in place, it must be measured against the requirement: have the measures put in place actually increased security?

An example to look to is El Al, an Israeli airline company. In the past 30 years, they have not had one single terrorist attack. This impressive track record certainly isn’t for lack of terrorists trying. Clearly, what they do should be studied. Their security policy does not have any of the pat downs or baggage checks that Americans are used to. It involves a set of interrogators who talk to passengers. They are highly skilled and can tell if a person is lying or seems suspicious. Certain groups of people, such as people of a certain age, gender, ethnicity or religious faith are likely to get interrogated harder. You can lament about the seeming racism in this if you want but it’s hard to argue against El Al’s track record. And if you want to talk about racism, you can see genuine racism in action by looking at Saudi Arabia’s airlines, which have a “No Jews allowed” policy.

I am of the belief that the response to start outlawing things or even the advocacy of the wanton use of military force stems from a position of fear. People are genuinely scared for their security or even life, with no means to defend it themselves, and thus want heavy-handed government policies. But I want you to do this: think of the last time you advocated an abridgement to civil rights in the name of security. Now I want you to ask yourself: did that policy actually make you, or any other innocent person, safer?

I believe our current policies are misguided. Baggage checks, taking off our shoes, patting down little old ladies--it's all stupid! I believe one of the best ways to preserve national security is not civil rights violations but freedom, specifically the right to bear arms. I don't think that a terrorist would be as quick to act if everywhere he went, he had to worry if a person was carrying. I also think those who own firearms and have mastered the mechanics of deadly force are less likely to live in fear and are less desirous for civil rights violations in the name of national security.

This debate has long been marred by people on extreme ends: either those who believe civil rights can never be abridged or those who, having decided it may be appropriate, wildly advocate for any abridgement of freedom whatsoever. An abridgement to freedom for national security is appropriate at times, but, when done so, should be governed by objectivity. The guiding principle should be: is a policy actually making the country safer?

The rejection of the initiation of force is not a primary. It is not an absolute law of reality. Freedom is conditional. It applies in peace time. In war time, however, different measures are needed for man's survival. The virtue of selfishness still applies, but its conclusions differ. Rational self-interest is no longer the conclusion; self-defense is.

Amber Pawlik
November 2, 2001
Revised December 10, 2011

"Nobody has to put up with aggression and surrender his right of self-defense for fear of hurting somebody else, guilty or innocent. When someone comes at you with a gun, if you have one ounce of self-esteem, you will answer him by force, never mind who he is or who is behind him. If he is out to destroy you, that is what you owe to the sanctity of your own life." -- Ayn Rand Ford Hall Forum 1972: "A Nation's Unity"


Islam on Trial: The Prosecution’s Case
Amber Pawlik
An article that argues that the violent ideology of Islam is the root of Islamic terrorism. Until we challenge Islam ideologically, Islamic terrorism will not be defeated. It includes a statistical study of the Koran which found over 50% of it is hatred of infidels. 16 pages long.

This article is protected under the US Copyright Act of 1976. No part may be copied.

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