Friday, March 1, 2024

Parable of the Bad Neighbor: What would you do?


    For the longest time I wish I could locate one of the worst examples I had ever read about pre-emptive war. It turns out I had looked in the right spot, but the website for a long time was defunct. (It’s still a bit funky to be honest.) The parable was vague, and a poorly written attack on me, but it did make me think. And after a brief foreword, I’ll provide my own parable that should be much better.

    As a preamble, I have to point out a few ways this parable is limited regarding international relations. That’s because those that live in a state have a series of criminal and civil remedies. If one neighbor is noisy, nosey, threatening, or violent in any way the other neighbors can do anything from filing a restraining order to calling the police. Even threats of violence, or “making terroristic threats,” can result in arrest so there is no need for preemptive self-help violence.

    The state doesn’t have most of those recourses in international relations. There are some limited remedies ranging from the World Court, Interpol, diplomats, and some international organizations, but it is the military that delivers protection and justice for its people. When the citizens of one nation find themselves threatened by another, the leaders of the state are the ones responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens. Unlike the parable of the neighborhood dispute, there are no police to call or restraining orders to file. I assume my interlocuter chose the example of neighbors because it seemed especially ridiculous to preemptively shoot one.

    Without further ado, let’s assume that this neighborhood doesn’t have legal and civil remedies. This is apocalyptic Australia, there are no police and Mad Max is chasing down a biker gang a continent away.

    A new guy moves into the neighborhood and despite your best efforts your relationship sours. But this isn’t what you see on Judge Judgy about barking dogs or a loud party. The new neighbor, Fred, believes the property line is misaligned, or maybe he thinks he was legitimately wronged in having a valuable fruit tree just over the line. For whatever reason, he is openly antagonistic towards you.

    After some time Fred finally says, “I will kill you.” The aggressive neighbor gives a speech that their problem will soon be solved.[1] You see Amazon truck after Amazon truck drop off giant boxes from the gun store.[2] He tracks you in the sights of his machine gun every time you leave the house. He repeatedly crosses the property line to see how quickly you react.

    Despite your best efforts to diffuse the situation, after some time his friends pull up in pickup trucks and armed with machine guns they surround your house. They step forward with their weapons loaded and racked with a round in the chamber but haven’t fired yet. They take aim, and they fire. Your house is Swiss cheese from all the bullets, but this is still the first attack (D&C 98:23-26). They reload, and attack two more times for a total of three attacks.

    The question becomes, at what point would the good follower of Jesus Christ attack?

    Remarkably, there are some people who would wait until the end of the parable to attack. They mistakenly apply Doctrine and Covenants 98 to assume that it is a guide to foreign policy. They believe that Mormons must patiently bear three trespasses (usually interpreted as attacks) and lift a standard of peace before attacking. This group of people sound strong when they quote the scripture to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (v.16). But their position falls apart with the first bullet as you think about what it truly means to bear three attacks such as the massed fire in the parable, three nuclear strikes, or three sword thrusts. Its completely ridiculous to think that Jesus requires suffering three Pearl Harbors or 9/11 attacks before defending yourself.

    The most likely answer is that you are justified in defending yourself after the first attack. This is a reasonable position to take in response to a clear attack. But there are problems with this position. Returning fire under these circumstances places the defender at a severe disadvantage. Remaining on the pure defensive allows the attacker to choose the time and place of the attack. The attacker could choose to strike when the defender is asleep or gone to the store or before the defender supplied his own guns and reinforcements. Once the attack commenced, the defender would have to return fire in the face of incoming gunfire. Ceding the initiative places you at in a reactionary and weaker position, much like the Nephites after the Lamanite attack in Alma 16. There is a significant chance that your defense at this point will not be enough to save your life. So again, waiting to receive the attack seems as strong as it is simplistic. But it can be a poor and dangerous standard. It’s the equivalent of having a deranged homeless man brandishing a knife on your subway train, but waiting to see what he does with it next (See below).

    If you want to have a much better defense, you should fire before they do! This option would preemptively attack between the point when the neighbors gather around your house and when they first fire at you. It might be when they first pull up, or when they aim their guns, but the defending neighbor knows when an attack is happening (or commenced) and he doesn’t have to wait for it to be carried out.

    And this gets to the crux of preemptive war. Preemptive war is the right to attack between the point when the attack is commenced but not carried out. Or as the Book of Mormon implies, when the sword is raised, but hasn’t yet struck (Alma 48:14). The key is the phrase “raise a sword,” which compares to the theoretical standard of preemptively striking a charging assailant with sword in hand.[3]

    But there are arguments that you could launch a just attack even earlier. What if your neighbor wasn’t importing more rifles, but instead was importing tactical nukes? Just the transfer of nuclear weapons to a place where an avowed enemy could quickly strike the continental US was enough to justify the blockade of Cuba. If your neighbor has vowed to strike and has the weapons, then there are other theorists that suggest the attack doesn’t have to be imminent.[4]  For example, if the US waited until the 9/11 strikes were commenced but not carried out, they still would destroy four airplanes filled with innocent Americans. These are variations that don’t change the right to preemptive war, only the application of that right regarding difficult issues like striking terrorists.

    So what does the parable of the Bad Neighbor teach us? Well the parable as originally given is too vague to be of much use except as a strawman perception of preemptive war. The specifics matter. The real-life application of the preemptive right is clearly seen in the New York Subway incident. An aggressive and disturbed person comes on board a train waving around a knife and screaming that he doesn’t care if he goes to jail. No rational person would say to themselves, “This is creepy, but let’s see where it’s going.” “The restored gospel is clearly superior to and excludes preemptive just war theory.” “The gospel says renounce war and proclaim peace.” Or maybe “we should wait until he tries to stab someone because after all, we only believe in defensive war.” Daniel Penny clearly and correctly anticipated an attack, so he subdued the dangerous would-be assailant.

     When these ideas are presented in a specific scenario, like a brandished gun about to be fired, or drawn knife in a closed subway, the Parable of the Bad Neighbor shows that most people intuitively agree with the concept of preemptive war. That strong intuition is a sense of your natural rights. When the neighbor has shown intent (they announce their intent to kill you), means (they have imported a devastating number of weapons), and the attack is imminent (they’ve surrounded your house and march towards it with raised weapons),[5] the sword is raised, and the attack is commenced but not carried out. As a result, the defending neighbor has a God given right to defend themselves preemptively.

    Exactly when that point is reached is often disputed. In fact it’s common in debates around the justified use of preemptive war to manipulate and rearrange details to make an attack seem less or more likely and hence more or less justified. In the parable that would be like an analyst claiming that the aimed weapons of Fred and his friends were really just target practice or warning shots, so the defending neighbor was overreacting. You'll see that both in the original parable below as I’m supposedly cool with randomly killing someone and Mark Henshaw tried to rearrange the details of Kishkumen’s attack as a rebuttal to my use of the story. Preemptive war can also be abused by Putin or Bush, but that doesn’t diminish the right. Again, these individuals are often invoked as stop think boogeymen.

    For kicks and giggles I've included  the original example. You’ll notice its far vaguer than my parable and filled with loaded language (panic, paranoid, snooping). I really hate the phony use of the word friend. It builds a straw man big enough to blaze at Burning Man and is included here as an illustration of the limited thought on the matter. At least it helped me to crystalize the key ideas behind the right to preemptive war:

How would our friend Morgan respond to the following situation? A new guy moves into the neighborhood, and after a few months of snooping and spying you determine that Fred…has an arsenal of weapons. You have a meeting with all your neighbors and decide that he might use them against you. You have no proof of this, yet the neighborhood is in a panic and everyone is paranoid that it might be them first. You collectively decide to use force to apprehend Fred’s arsenal, and when he politely refuses the situation escalates and a fellow neighbor shoots Fred with a 30-06 from 300 yards. Problem solved. No judge, no jury, just an executioner. Everyone is safe right? But was it moral? Did you not kill Fred before he had done anything wrong? Obviously this scenario is absurd, but what is the difference when nations do the same thing in the name of patriotism and nationalism?

Asked and decisively answered. Thanks for reading. For a more official and in depth version of scriptures, theory, and preemptive war see my article in Square Two, Kishkumen’s Dagger.

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[1] The Communists clearly indicated they wanted to take islands in the Taiwan Strait Crisis which led to preemptive US intervention.

[2] The transfer of nuclear weapons to Cuba was enough for President Kennedy to consider a first strike. He said, “we no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in deployment may well be regarded as a threat to peace.” Mark Totten, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010),71.

[3] Mark Totten, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 129-146.

[4] Totten, First Strike, 136. 

[5] These are the expanded criteria given by Grotius. Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Stephen Neff trans., (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 84.

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