Indiscriminate Retribution is Evil

by Andrew Youd
20th November 2015

The Paris terrorist attacks have shocked the Western world and drawn harsh condemnation. Even though many Westerners[i] were not directly affected, many feel offended by these events because of the shared values they hold with the Parisians. As some commentators have said, this was an attack on all who share the values of modern, democratic, and secular nations. What draws most revulsion and opposition is the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, and it warrants our harshest of judgements, that it was evil.

Over the last few days the Australian Grand Mufti, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, has drawn sharp criticism over his statement in response to the Paris attacks. In his short statement he notes that current strategies in response to terrorism are not working, and “causative factors such as racism, Islamophobia, curtailing freedoms through securitisation, duplicitous foreign policies and military intervention must be comprehensively addressed.”[ii] I don’t want to get into the politics of this statement, and what the Grand Mufti should or should not have said, but I do want to address the issues raised of causative factors, like racism and Islamophobia. It sounds like he is saying that these things are the cause or reasons for the terrorists’ actions. All of this raises the question of responses to injustice.

Ethics, Conflict, and Violent Force

As I’ve said before, and will most likely say again in the future, ethics is largely about conflict. Moral conflict, however, need not be violent. Individuals often experience the internal conflict of conscience, popularised in media by the devil and angel on the person’s shoulders. Such inner conflict is often expressive of external conflict between people. Many ethicists like to discuss abstract problems, but the reality of ethics is resolving relational conflict, not just our abstractions. Ethical maturity is relational maturity.

The point of ethical and relational maturity is learning to navigate such conflict so that the best outcome can be achieved for all. We seek to overcome our differences by clarifying rights and obligations, weighing roles and rules, and looking for the best path to satisfy the most moral value for all involved. Good conflict negotiation should always seek to work together to achieve the best shared outcome.

The resort to unprovoked force, on the other hand, is an immature approach to conflict.[iii] Force seeks to control, dominate, and to impose one’s will on another person. It is the end of negotiation and therefore the end of ethics, as it no longer seeks to satisfy the good of both. Many use force in non-violent ways: they use it through manipulation, coercion, and the abuse of power (such as authority). At other times, the abuse of power is physical power, and such extreme immorality manifests itself in violence. This becomes the imposition of will by force and the end of relationship. Such acts undoubtedly cause harm and suffering, and are rightly condemned.

Indiscriminate retribution toward Islamophobia

We might never know if any of the terrorists who perpetrated the abhorrent crimes last Friday night were the victims of prejudice, or Islamophobia. Considering the claim of responsibility by ISIL, and their stated aims of annihilating all who oppose them, I highly doubt that retribution for Islamophobia was the main reason for their actions. Yet, it is worth spending time discussing the notion of retribution and the actions associated with it.

Retribution has its place in response to injustice. Modern law seeks, through legitimate authority, to find the right balance of proportionate punishment for crimes. Being a victim of racism and Islamophobia is an injustice, and the perpetrators of such should be held accountable. However, would being a victim of Islamophobia provide adequate cause and reason for the actions of last Friday? Of course not! The actions were not proportionate, they were not by legitimate authority, and they were not against the guilty. Even if one was the victim of prejudice, it is no moral justification to kill innocent people, for there is no valid cause or reason to indiscriminately kill – such is always an injustice and an evil.

Indiscriminate Retribution toward Muslims

The Western world feels wounded and offended by the events in Paris, and many seek retribution in response. Such retribution is justly directed toward the extremist criminals directly responsible. However, beyond this many will desire the force of the law to be brought against sympathisers, and those that may have the potential to do harm in the future. Obviously prevention is better than cure. I recognise that these are difficult and complex issues where we must balance ideals like love and tolerance with practical wisdom and the realities of security. While hopefully you won’t hear anyone suggesting violence be directed toward the Muslim community, you may hear people discussing immigration legislation, refugee policies, and our treatment of the Muslim community in general.

Have you noticed my point already?

Such discussion can too easily move from the minority who are guilty to the majority of Muslims who are not, and that is to punish indiscriminately, which is wrong.

A modern democratic secular state is a remarkable thing. It provides the freedom, justice, and security to promote maximum flourishment for diverse peoples. What makes a democratic modern nation great is that all persons are considered irreducibly valuable[iv]; all have rights, and no one can violate them for the sake of their own individual preference. We restrain violence and we do not accept retribution, aggression, or discrimination against the innocent. While not perfect, it seems history has not produced a better system of organising and governing national communities. The influx of refugees into Western countries suggests that democracy and freedom are desired by those who know a world without these privileges. This is something that needs to be protected. In such a just and peaceful society, indiscriminate retribution has no place – no matter from who it comes and toward whom it is directed. People of all faiths (including the peaceful Muslim majority) have a responsibility to protect the innocent.


The Western world has a moral claim against those that would seek to compromise or destroy the justice, peace, and multicultural and multi-religious way of life that we enjoy. We rightly criticise terrorists that indiscriminately attack the innocent. The full force of the law should be brought against all who would support, plan, and carry out such actions. Yet, in our zealous pursuit to protect and defend our way of life, it is imperative that we do not indiscriminately retaliate. While we might never perpetrate violence, we must ensure that our attitudes, words, and actions do not indiscriminately punish the guilty and innocent alike. We must navigate with maturity the ethical imperative of ensuring that just retribution belongs to the deserving – extremist criminals – and just protection belongs to the blameless.

The events in Paris were no doubt an attack on our way of life, aimed at eroding our community. This is our time to ensure that the values of democracy are upheld, and in the pursuit of justice to guarantee that indiscriminate retribution has no place.



[i] By Western I mean democratic and secular nations.


[iii] It should be noted that the resort to unprovoked force is at issue. Just-war theorists will note that there is an appropriate ethical use of restrained force, as a last resort, in response to violent provocation for the purpose of saving innocent lives.

[iv] This can be debated in some extreme cases, such as abortion, euthanasia, and the like.