One of the great tragedies being played out on the international scene these days is the presumption that there exists an absolute right to "defend oneself." If there are terrorists in the world who are out to do damage to Americans, someone proclaims that we have a right to defend ourselves. If an extremist group in Lebanon kills Israeli Soldiers, Israel had a right to defend itself.
We're buying this because, to the person on the street, it feels right. If somebody tries to drag me into their car, I have a right to defend myself, to kick and scream and do them damage...even to kill, if necessary.
Not all ethical systems buy this; Jesus, for instance, was flat out against it. (remember, "turn the other cheek?") Judaism is only a bit more liberal; Jews are enjoined to take only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and not a bit more. Taking an eye for an eyelash, which is what they are doing at the moment, is considered wrong by Biblical standards. But American law upholds the right of a person to defend themselves, even if they do considerable damage to the one trying to hurt them.
So if a guy is trying to abduct my child, I can hurt or even kill him. That's defending myself(my family actually, but that's ok, too.)
What I can't do is chase him out the back door and then shoot his wife who is waiting in the car on the street. Even is she's almost certainly a part of the plot, I can't do that. Nor can I chase him into my neighbor's house and set fire to the house. I can't even chase him into HIS house and set fire to the house. Why not? because for one thing, a house on fire is a danger to the entire neighborhood. And for another, because that goes way beyond defending myself. It moves into the terribly dangerous realms of revenge and taking the law into my own hands.
Nations are not persons, and the systems of international law which would make it unnecessary for a nation to take the law into its own hands are still in the development stage. Still, the national right to "defend itself" has to be limited for the same reasons the personal right to defend oneself has to be limited. It is not moral even by the most liberal standards of morality to wreak death and destruction on an entire nation of mostly innocent people because one feels, or even actually is threatened by a small subset of those people. To begin to address this problem, Catholic moralists developed a theory of Just War. It's one of the best things they've done for the world.
Even President Bush must know that the right of nations to defend themselves does have limits. That's why he brought out the "weapons of mass destruction card" at the beginning of the Iraq war. For if it really is not moral to burn down the neighbors house because a bad guy took refuge there, it might be ok to do that if the bad guy is about to blow up the entire neighborhood.
But we were duped on that one.
And now it is time to say to those who say, that we, or anybody else has a "right to defend ourselves, " some things like, "What about turning the other cheek?" "Is this a Just War? and "What about an eye for an eye (and no more?"
Or the neighborhood that is our world could go up in flames.