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"I have the right to defend myself"
July 29th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

"I have the right to defend myself"

   With "mindfulness of thoughts" (, trying to avoid superficial thinking (not necessarily wrong in itself… but incomplete… hence biased), let's tackle the "I have the right to defend myself"  and notably (given the international context) in relation to states or nations 'defending' themselves.


   Many people (and notably American people) think that « if I were being shot at, I have (and in my view, so does everyone) the right to defend with force, including deadly force if necessary » is obvious.

   The obvious-ness of it only highlights the 'prejudice' nature of the narrative though!

   It's actually easy to show that this right is more 'conditioned' than this opinion suggests:
   • if you're shot at by the police of your state while the said police tries to stop a crime you're committing, you rarely have a 'right' to defend yourself.
   • if you're shot at by your victim, to stop a crime you're committing, you rarely have a 'right' to 'defend' yourself.
   Hence "being shot at" hardly is a sufficient condition.


   The generalisation from self-defence at the individual level to some idea of self-defence at the collective level is also commonly done without much thought behind it, just as an assumption.

   States are political systems, based on laws (in one form or another). A 'right' to "strike back" is a lot more limited and conditioned than most people emotionally assume it is —regardless of how 'understandable' the emotion is.

   For example, modern international law recognises only three  lawful justifications for waging war: self-defence, defence of an ally required by the terms of a treaty, and approval by the United Nations.

   Self-defence itself is a lot more constrained than people think.
   Article 51 of the UN Charter: « Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of collective or individual self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.  Measures taken by members in exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. »
   This clearly indicates that, once the UN responds  (possibly by telling a state that it is over-reacting and should stop its so-called 'defence'!), further 'defence' might actually become 'aggression', and propaganda will not change this.
   This provision is to avoid self-serving narratives: of course, everyone going to war would state that it's to "defend oneself", or an ally… since it's the only legal excuse accepted! But saying so doesn't make it the assessment of the UN!
   The best way we know to check one's sanity is peer-review, that's not ideal but it's better than the Law of the Jungle.

   The notion of "imminent threat" is the standard criterion in international law which might allow not only to respond but also to strike preemptively, without waiting for the UN to deliberate… but it is described as a threat being "instant, overwhelming,  and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation." Typically, 'overwhelming' doesn't describe rockets that don't  go through the Iron Dome…

The biggest error of all

   Let's go back to basics though: having a 'right' doesn't mean it 'should' automatically be used!
   It's a matter of being constructive: will the response based on such a right be useful, or not?

   You may have e.g. ownership rights. This doesn't mean you couldn't possibly be generous! Your 'right' to "keep ownership of something" doesn't make "keeping it" compulsory or even automatically a good idea!

   In conflict zones, we already know that a round of state-level violence might serve as future deterrence (hence indeed 'defend' the state not only in the short but also in the long term)… but a round of state-level violence might also give birth to the next generation of terrorists, notably from the ranks of children whose parents die as "collateral damage" and are not helped to heal such a trauma (children of terrorists might later figure out why their parents died, but children of innocents will only nurture hatred unless they're seriously helped to cope with such an unfair loss at an age when "accepting things as they are" isn't really possible yet)…

   In terms of conventional wisdom, the 'right' to "defend oneself" might be used when it's effective, but should not  be used when it leads to escalation: you don't defend yourself by making the situation worse! You don't defend yourself by ensuring the supply of future enemies!

   In many zones, deterrence out of strong retaliation might be hoped… but the track record (over many years) suggests that state-level violence doesn't produce this effect, so state-level violence should be avoided (being proven 'pointless' in reality… regardless of whatever 'principles' and 'ideologies' say) and alternative solutions considered.

   Regardless of having the right to defend oneself, if it doesn't work, look for something else —instead of hitting the wall at full speed, based on some stubborn and ignorant "this time, it will work (even if it never worked for decades)!"

   The 'right' to "defend oneself" might be used when it's useful, but should not be used when it leads to escalation.

   This is the whole point of non-violence: violence creates resentment, which will cause future violence… In short, any violence leads to escalation.
   « Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. »
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

   Non-violence worked several time in History, not just with Gandhi (who successfully  responded to massacres like Jalianwalla Bagh though, massacres with a lot  more dead bodies than Israel is suffering over many  years combined…).

   It's not just about non-violence as a wholesome principle though; it's about 'practicalities' on the ground, at state level.

   Policemen is many countries are shot at on a regular basis by the "organised crime" (mafia, drug dealers, human traffickers, etc.).
   States are used to some form of "balance of power" with organised crime (even if, of course, there's 'officially' no concession). And whatever the balance of power is (basically letting things run as long as it stays "below the radar" —because an "all-out war" would create more damage than the criminal activity itself), it means no principle is absolute.
   This is not cowardice from the state or nation, it's 'utilitarianism' or 'realism': one thinks through the costs of the various options, and picks the best option based on such costs, instead of based on some generic principle which might be well-sounding but with little actual connection with reality!

   No state responds by sending the army to wipe out the whole suburb where a few policemen die, and certainly no non-authoritarian state starts considering "collateral damage" of nearby civilians as acceptable!
   To do otherwise might push an isolated event, no matter how sad,  into a civil war! Moreover, that's what respecting "human rights" requires… and that's what the current pressure on Israel to protect civilians is all about!
   Of course, the state still  responds, by targeted action, to the murder of its policemen; it's not sitting there, doing nothing!  But there's 'responding' and there's 'responding'! Force is used when it helps, in the form it helps (i.e. targeted action, with the strongest priority on preventing any  collateral damage), and not used when it leads to escalation!

   Only the worst authoritarian states would justify killing thousands of innocents because a few policemen died in a 'rough' suburb. Only the worst states would use the silence of the local population, or its fear of retaliation from the gangs, as a propaganda asserting that the whole suburb is "organised crime".


   The deadliest year in terms of deaths from rockets sent over Israel was 2012 with 6 (six) dead. [Reminder: 'overwhelming' is a condition for "imminent threat". In 2012, 263 Israelis died in car crashes…]

   Over the first 21 days of the current conflict, 1,088 Palestinians were killed (of which 251 —23%— were children). According to the UN, 75% of Palestinians killed are civilians.

   On August 21st, a single Israeli air strike killed 25 Palestinians, including 19 children, who had come together to break their Ramadan fast. Israel claimed 1 (one) Hamas military-wing member was a guest in the house. Tell me again about doing the utmost to protect civilians?

   Almost half  of Gaza residents are currently  under the age of 18. Even if they wanted to vote, they could not have voted for Hamas in the 2006 election!

   For starters, "I have the right to defend myself"  isn't naïvely automatically true (in particular if you're breaking the law, and Israel does routinely break several international laws!)… and it certainly doesn't give anyone the right to massacre a large number of innocents.

   None of this excuses terrorism, of course! There still are constraints on how to respond though!

==> Worth a read:
==> Worth a signature: (further arguments in post and comment thread of