In the supposed linear world presented by politicians — for every unjust action there must be a reaction. Not only to stop future similar actions, but for revenge purposes as well. Most likely a frame of thinking taken from the Old Testament: An eye for an eye.
However what such thinking doesn't take into consideration is that in most cases the relationship between action & reaction in the world of politics tends to operate on a parabolic cycle rather than a linear path with a certain ending. Which then begs the question at what point does the reaction(s) of a nation against unjust and inhumane action of others justifiable? Justifiable not only from the usual moral & ethical perspectives but also from points pertaining to economic, political and even societal.
To better explain let me go over two events, first the 9/11 attacks and then the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
As a result of the attacks on 9/11/01 by those men who were influenced by Al Qaeda ideologies approximately 2,973 people which by the way not all were Americans lost their lives. This event led citizens of the countries that were effected by this attack mainly U.S. and NATO countries to allow their governments to first invade Afghanistan, and then Iraq in a war that was meant to fight terrorism, but one that I presume meant to avenge the loss of those who lost their life on 9/11.
However the irony is that as this seemingly never ending war against terrorism is continuing more people (both innocent civilians & military service men & women) are dying in an effort to avenge the lives of those killed by those 19 men who already had died. In the first war in Afghanistan so far 330 US soldiers have died while 560 injured, and in the second war in Iraq another 2,662 US soldiers have given their life, while another 9,062 injured (Source: US Dept. of Defense). To these we need to add another ~70 death for the troops from NATO serving in Afghanistan, and another ~227 death by coalition forces in Iraq.
Now here I haven't even touched on the other victims of the war which are the Afghan and Iraqi civilians! Some studies put Iraqi civilian death toll to be around 100,000 to 655,000 while others that only use reported deaths in the media put the estimate at ~40,000. President Bush himself conceded on the ~30,000 figure. As far as Afghan's well the casualty on their side is estimated to be ~15,000.
So all in all as a whole somewhere around 48,000 to maybe 118,000 (I know pretty wide range) have died in the past 5 years as a result of 9/11. Moreover these figures don't even include the sudden spike in terrorism and casualties post 9/11 — e.g. attacks in Bali, Madrid, London that caused the death of even more people. Of course this is just looking at it from purely the perspective of those who lost their lives and not from all of the other consequences of such actions such as economic cost and economic trade-offs ($ on weapons vs. $ on education) of waging such a war, America's reputation in the world, social impacts of those that somehow have been touched by this war and etc …
In the other example of challenges and dilemmas in reacting against inhumane actions I can't help but to think of the 1979 revolution in Iran. Recently I had an exchange of thoughts with a friend after I shared a 2003 revelation by an Iranian political activist Emad Baghi. In his book “A Survey Of Iran's Revolution” he devoted a brief section to a review of actual death toll pre 1979 revolution. His findings which were as a result of having access to Martyrs Foundation (Bonyad Shahid) data showed that during the year of 1963-1977 where opposition groups were accusing the Shah's regime of horrible atrocities a total of 383 people were killed by the regime.
After the revolution started in 1977 and ended in 1979 an additional 2,781 people were killed for a total sum of 3,164. This is while many opposition leaders including Khomeini frequently throw around figures of ~60,000 for the same time period! In fact while in exile in an interview in 1972 Khomeini cleverly suggested that it had been told that in the 1963 uprising 15,000 were killed by the regime, whereas the actual figure was 32! Such exaggerations continued on and in fact were elevated during the period of 1977-79 after each account of friction between the regime and revolutionaries. For example in one of the supposed bloodiest days of revolution (17th Shahrivar) in 1977 actual data showed 64 people were killed, whereas many in the opposition, and foreign media sources put the numbers to be around 4,000 and some even 10,000!
In both the 9/11 attacks and 1979 Iranian Revolution the citizens in these countries had to make a choice in how to address such atrocities. Although the situations have hugely different circumstances and history behind them, but in as far as the over reaction of the citizens they do share some commonality. At what “end” does both the mean and the outcome justify the cause? Does killing 15,000 Afghan and another 40,000 Iraqi justify having 3000 killed by mainly Saudi men? Does killing 1000 Lebanese for having 2 soldiers taken prisoner, and 3 killed justify both the mean and outcome?
Does having a revolution that was mainly inspired on the death of supposed 60,000 people (actually 383), and then having another 2,781 die during the revolution and an additional ~4,000 more executed afterward — all justify the cause of having democracy? In fact in Iran's case one can also take it one hyothetical step further by wondering had it not been for the revolution and Iran's relation with U.S., Iraq probably would not have had attacked Iran, or at least the war would not have been as long as it was. Thus raising the possibility that had it not been for Iranians over reaction to the horrible atrocities done by the Shah's regime to the 383 people , just maybe — maybe another approximate 450,000 – 1,000,000 Iranians wouldn't have died during the war with Iraq!
Now here I must explain that my comments are not meant to suggest that no fights are worth fighting for — no that is not my position. I'm all for holding guilty people accountable, and punished, and I can see the rational for some nations to wage wars or even have revolutions. At what levels and what reactions it makes them justifiable — well that has to be answered on an individual bases, as I don't have a formula for say the threshold of death on both the side of aggressor and victim in making it a just or an unjust reaction. Having said that I do think that if the reaction will cause the death of multiple more people, then maybe as much as killing one innocent person idealistically is equivalent to killing all innocent people, but since realistically it doesn't then it may be best to just accept what happened — however tough it may be, and find an alternative approach.
Lastly my main point is that I think all responsible citizens must make sure that their political leaders have exhausted all peaceful means in trying to stop future unjust actions before allowing them to resort to war or say revolution — which could lead to killing of many others. This of course requires accepting the responsibility of making sure we are informed enough so we are not manipulated into allowing those with their own agendas, and not so well thought out plans to change the course of our destiny.