Ep. 1-3: What is the Virtue of a Proportional Response?

I forgive everything that (didn’t) happen in the last episode because this one was so great. Every three minutes, someone was having a high-flown philosophical debate that could make for an entire one of these blog posts. Proportional response is the most obvious (I mean, it’s the episode title), but we can also talk about Syria, holding people to a higher standard, the role of a chief of staff, threatening vs. criticizing the president, liberal Berkeley feministas, and a host of other issues. Plus, we get the introduction of Charlie, the intellectual sparring of Josh/CJ and Sam/CJ, and a conversation underlining the importance of Leo and the President’s friendship. A+ IMO.

What’s this proportional response thing?

A “proportional response” is one that acts in proportion to the crime committed. Conversely, a disproportional response is one where the punishment highly outweighs the crime. The Geneva Convention (Protocol 1, Article 51) lays out the criteria for an attack to be considered indiscriminate/disproportionate, and the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has further defined a disproportionate response as “an attack [that] is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.”


In this episode, President Bartlet questions the virtue of a proportional response, given America’s overwhelming military power. He asks why the U.S. can’t simply respond with such force that no one would dare kill an American ever again. At issue here are debates about what level of escalation should American presidents choose and issues of credibility.  What happens when we escalate? What happens if the President decides to carpet bomb Damascus in response to a shoot down? The lure of using American power to dole out punishment and retribution is tempting, but the government must resist and use its power judiciously.

President Bartlett makes the point for overwhelming force to demonstrate to the world that American military power should be deterrent enough to prevent harm from befalling any one of its citizens. That’s a fair point. We should be able to protect our citizens, and some would argue that a demonstration is necessary to ensure that other countries take our threats seriously.

How do you decide what’s proportional?

It depends on the situation. For President Bartlet, the downing of an American plane was met with the destruction of four Syrian military targets. For President Roosevelt, the proportional response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor was to declare war against Japan. Most recently, Iran promised a proportional response to Trump’s immigration ban, but we have yet to see what “legal, consular and political” actions it will take. Today, the main issue is how to respond proportionally to cyber attacks. When North Korea hacked Sony, was President Obama’s decision to shut off their power grid adequately proportional? When Russia hacks an election, is it proportional to respond with a conventional military strike, or is that unnecessary escalation? These decisions are actively being made and re-made every day as the landscape of war shifts over time.

This is too complicated. Why does acting proportionally matter?

Choosing to act disproportionately is almost never a good option. First, a military escalation will clearly result in a greater number of civilian casualties, innocent lives that never should be put at risk, even despite the foolhardy decisions of the Syrian government. While the American lives are no less valuable, we surrender the moral high ground by responding to the deaths of our military service members by killing innocent civilians. A disproportionate response that unfairly targets innocent civilians also violates the Geneva Conventions, opening the US up to prosecution from the International Criminal Court.

Okay, but wouldn’t it make Americans safer? Isn’t the president’s first duty to Americans, not citizens of other countries?

Escalation also constrains the realm of our possible future responses. Actions have consequences — second- and third-order consequences will naturally follow. While some might argue that an overwhelming show of military force would have cowed the Syrian government into surrender, what would that have achieved?  Would be we be prepared for the second order consequences of carpet-bombing Damascus? Would we be prepared for the Iranians to heat up their rhetoric and conduct further missile tests or make passes at American destroyers in the Gulf? Would we be able to stop the Israelis from responding to the Iranian posturing?

In short, escalation can’t be the immediate answer. A rational response must prevail – one that responds to the damage done, but leaves a way out.  The least favored option for any President must be war. War must always be a last resort. That threat alone of destruction, pain, and suffering should be deterrent enough to allow cooler heads to prevail.



Josh and Donna watch: They have a good five minutes of conversation in the beginning of this episode, during which Josh admits that Donna knows everything, which is (almost) true. She also asks him for a raise! She doesn’t get it, but way to stand up for yourself, Donna. Who cares about a dumb scribbled-on picture when you can see Donna every day?


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