Johnson referred to contemporary conflicts such as the Sept. 11 attacks, Rwandan genocide, train and subway bombings in Spain and England, and ethnic cleansing in Darfur to elucidate his point.
"[It is] nonsensical to think that the people who were involved in these events have any possibility of ever being brought to trial," Johnson told about 65 St. Olaf students, faculty members and local listeners in the Buntrock Ballrooms.
Contemporary moral and ethical thinking about war has stressed the movement towards holding individuals instead of states accountable for human rights violations; doing so has abated the restraints on contemporary warfare.
Johnson stated that the problem lies in the assumption that people will be able to catch specific individuals who directly and intentionally targeted noncombatants in, for example, the Rwandan genocide, without the ability to use modern forensic tactics to convict them.
The inability to convict individuals stems from the increasing focus on moral debates about the inherent destructiveness of contemporary weapons and the use of war as an instrument of state policy. "But there is next to nothing about this real face of contemporary warfare which is direct intentional harm of ordinary persons, often by the most horrific means available," Johnson said.
Turning to historical evidence, Johnson used examples of the 1977 Geneva Protocols and the 1983 U.S. Catholic Bishops' essay to show how a moral and ethical focus on war, though benevolent in intent, has actually created more problems.
The Geneva Protocols tried to level the playing field for rebels fighting against oppressive states by allowing the rebels to conceal their weapons and status as soldiers until just moments before engaging in combat. Johnson said that, despite their original intent, the Geneva Protocols opened the way for terrorists wearing typical Middle Eastern garb to drive all the way up to American checkpoints before opening fire on unsuspecting guards. Essentially, the lines between combatant and noncombatant became blurred.
The U.S. Catholic Bishops' essay attacked the modernization of nuclear weapons' targeting abilities due to moral and ethical conflicts. "If this hadn't been utterly ignored, we would never have had laser guided bombs, GPS guided bombs," Johnson stated. "[We] would never have the kind of accuracy that air warfare is capable of today."
The tentative solution to this historical development is for moralists and ethicists to think operationally about limitations in warfare instead of anticipating the escalation of unavoidable human rights violations in every conflict. Militarists and politicians need to set up social mechanisms that train and discipline soldiers and create weapons that will allow less lethal forms of combat.
"It may very well be that the best solution to all this is to try to nurture robust states and then hold them accountable, their leaders accountable, because they can be reached after all," Johnson said.