Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Security and Defense

James W. Skillen


December 10, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(This is a continuation of our series using edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for the Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

The Center’s Guideline on security and defense begins: (1) “Government’s responsibility, under law, entails the protection of the political community from those who threaten life, property, and public peace. Government alone has the right to monopolize control of force for the purpose of upholding and enforcing the law.”
(2) “Government’s responsibility for domestic security and retributive justice is institutionalized in the form of police forces and court systems...”  Real security requires restorative justice for the victim, the restoration of tranquility to the community, and reconciliation between victim and offender, insofar as that can be achieved.

With respect to security for states in the international arena, the basic principles are the same, though the circumstances are different: (3) “Government’s responsibility to protect society from unjust military aggression and foreign criminal violation is institutionalized in the form of defense forces, foreign intelligence services, a diplomatic corps, and other offices for international relations.” Here, too, all such means of trying to maintain a country’s security must be governed by law, which is one reason why the United States requires civilian control of the military.

All of this brings us to the central and summary affirmation of the guideline: (4) “Both police forces and defense forces should be bound by law to use force justly…Laws governing the use of force have been articulated in American state and federal statutes, in international laws such as the Geneva conventions on war, and in the historic Christian ‘just war doctrine’…Government may use lethal force only for just cause, as a last resort, and when the success of such retributive action appears probable.”

In the case of non-military aggression, domestic terrorists should be treated as criminals by domestic intelligence agencies, the police, and the courts. International terrorists should be thwarted by thorough security measures at home and by the police and intelligence agencies of other countries. And when it happens, as it did on 9/11, that terrorists succeed in some violent purpose, the response may need to be a multi-dimensional domestic and international cooperative effort to capture and punish those responsible. Moreover, the U.S. and every other country in the United Nations (UN) have an obligation to consider the UN’s role in combating international terrorism.

Justice also places demands on the way police and military forces conduct themselves:  (5) “Police and defense forces must…uphold noncombatant immunity, limit the use of force to a proportionate measure, seek to end conflict as quickly as possible and with the least possible destruction, and aim to restore conditions of peace and stability.” Police officers and military personnel in the United States can be arrested and tried for illegitimate conduct because the rule of law binds even those who are commissioned to use force to do so only in accord with the law.

The Guideline further recognizes that: (6) “Our ‘shrinking’ globe…has led most countries to join a growing number of alliances and international organizations…Countries should see their responsibilities for security, defense, and retributive justice as increasingly interdependent, and should cooperate to strengthen international law and institutions.”

As powerful as the United States is, we are tied in tightly to the World Trade Organization, to NATO, and to dozens of treaties, free trade agreements, and other cooperative agencies. However large our economy, it is increasingly intertwined with Europe, China, Japan, and other countries.

Taking all of this into account, we come to the seventh and last affirmation of the guideline. (7) “The United States, currently the world’s dominant military power, should take the lead in helping to strengthen international law and institutions. It should do this for its own and the world’s security, and to defend the innocent against unjust aggression...”

The actions of the United States must meet criteria of justice or else it decreases its potential to defend the innocent, to strengthen international law, and to build trust that is necessary for cooperation among the nations of the world.

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”