[Editor’s Note: Michael Baxter teaches Religious Studies and Catholic Studies at Regis University in Denver. A longtime associate of the Catholic Worker movement, Baxter served as director of the Catholic Peace Fellowship from 2001-2012. Recent press reports have noted an increase in “cyberwar” capabilities, with the New York Times running a story on a U.S. project to place malware in Russian power networks, in retaliation for similar activity by Russia-backed hackers. Baxter spoke about this new escalation with Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: The advanced stage of cyberwar as reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago was astonishing to me. Was it to you as well? Or could you see this new era coming so soon?

Baxter: I recall reading the news reports of incidents in cyberwar: Russia infiltrating U.S. military computers in 2008; the U.S. and Israel using malware to shut down a nuclear plant in Iran; the Chinese hack into Lockheed-Martin and to get designs to the F-35 fighter jets; the North Koreans hack into SONY Pictures because they didn’t like the movie “The Interview”; Russian hackers shutting down the power in the Ukraine in 2015 and 2016; and of course, Russian hackers getting into the Democratic National Committee computers and disrupting the 2016 presidential election. So, the recent Times article and podcast are reporting on a series of incidents that have been happening for years. In fact, the origins of cyberwar go back to the Cold War.

What I find striking now is how quickly cyberwar has been integrated into the overall military command structure. Just after Obama became president, USCYBERCOM was created, working in conjunction with the National Security Agency. Eight years later, at the end of the Obama presidency, it was elevated to a unified command.

In August 2018, Trump granted it the authority to conduct its operations without prior presidential approval. Critics said the U.S. has been slow to respond to cyber-aggressions, but that is changing. The United States — along with Great Britain, Israel, Sweden, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and many others — is in an arms race to militarize cyberspace.

I immediately began thinking about what the traditional just war theory would have to say about this. In what ways would the traditional paradigm apply?

One way it clearly applies has to do with the principle of discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, between military and civilian targets. In traditional just war theory, it is permissible to disable an enemy’s capacity to launch military strikes or its communications systems, and now, these can be done with computers. In this sense, cyberattacks would not be unlike blowing up bridges or radio towers in order to disrupt enemy operations.

On the other hand, a cyberattack aimed at disabling the power grids or the transportation and communications systems of a whole city or region would not be permitted. It would shut down hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, schools, banks — institutions that civilians rely on in their ordinary lives. This is what Russia did in December of 2015, cutting electricity to nearly a quarter million Ukrainians, and again in December of 2016. These blackouts did not last long, but they allowed Russia to test its ability to wage cyberwar on a foreign infrastructure. This is immoral in cyberwar just as it is in conventional war. For example, it was immoral the United States purposely attacked the civilian infrastructure of Iraq in its relentless bombing campaign in 1991.

Applying the principle of discrimination to cyberwar will surely involve familiar just-war terms and categories: Intention, collateral damage, proportionate damage inflicted. These terms will be used by policymakers, military strategists, and public intellectuals in judging the morality of military operations in cyberspace.

And then there is the greatly vexed matter of deterrence. During the Cold War, the strategy of both the United States and the Soviet Union was to build and deploy nuclear weapons so that they would not be used. If each nation assured the other that it would respond to a first-strike with a massive retaliatory strike on the population centers of the aggressor, a first-strike would be deterred. Apart from ignoring the dangerous human factors involved (accidents, machinery breakdowns, errors in judgment, irrational actors), this strategy required that both sides threaten to aim nuclear weapons at civilian targets, and actually launch a retaliatory strike if the occasion should arise. Such an evil intention is not permitted in Catholic moral teaching, even for the sake of a good outcome, like averting a nuclear exchange. Catholic thinkers debated this strategy for decades. It remained unresolved throughout the Cold War. When the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace (1983), they punted on the issue of nuclear deterrence. The issue has remained unresolved ever since.

The same problem with deterrence strategy is sure to arise as regards cyberwar. In fact, it has arisen already. The reason the United States is stepping up its cyberwar capacity is to ensure its adversaries, Russia, China, Iran, and the rest, are deterred from launching a cyberattack in the first place. As General Paul Makasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, has said, the United States needs to “defend forward,” an obfuscating phrase that means boring deeply into enemy networks to show that the U.S. will be able to respond in kind to cyberattacks. John Bolton, the national security advisor under Trump, implied the same thing when, in his nomination hearing, he lamented that our cyber-enemies don’t fear us. That’s the reality lying at the psychological core of deterrence strategy: fear.

After the invention of nuclear weapons, and now living in a post 9/11 world where we have to deal with amorphous, non-state actors, the onset of cyberwar just seems like yet another blow to the traditional, just-war paradigm, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does, but the just-war tradition has proved to be remarkably resilient over the centuries, so it’s important to place these recent developments in historical context.

In the Middle Ages, the crossbow was prohibited because it could pierce armor and was thus regarded as too dangerous. With the industrial revolution, warfare was transformed into a more efficient and destructive endeavor; think of the advances in the production of steel, for example, and in transportation with the emergence of railroads and steamboats.

In World War I, it became possible to attack an adversary with chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, and to attack an enemy from the air, from planes; both were seen as crossing the line. Then came nuclear weapons, and other chemical and biological weapons. For years, we lived with the threat of militarizing space, which became a reality. Now the immediate concern has to do with militarizing of cyberspace. And so it goes.

Don’t get me wrong. I find our ability to rationally justify every weapon of war to be deeply disconcerting. Technological advances all too often enable us to sharpen our fangs. But from an historical angle, it is not surprising. Nor should it be surprising when moral philosophers and theologians, including Catholic ones, use the well-worn principles of the just war tradition to justify cyberwar.

So you can you imagine the Catholic Church developing its doctrine in this area?

Yes, sure. In accord with the standard just-war principles, we may say that a cyberwar is just if it is waged by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, with a proper intention, as a last resort, with a reasonable chance of success, and in a proportionate manner so that the good being sought is outweighed by the evil likely to result. Scholars are already analyzing cyberwar along these lines.

But let me also say that the reflection on these matters by Catholics in the United States is likely to be depressingly predictable. The patterns of thought and debate among Catholic philosophers, theologians, and public intellectuals will take an all-too-familiar form. Liberal Catholics will extol the importance of restraint in foreign policy and press for diplomatic solutions with broad international support, and they will urge caution in the area of cyberwar on those grounds. Conservative Catholics will stress the threat made by the nation’s adversaries and call for a tough, no-nonsense, “realist” approach to hostile cyberattacks coming our way. This familiar division between liberal and conservative Catholics hardened during the 1980s when Catholics debated U.S. policy on nuclear weapons. I don’t see it changing any time soon.

But then, how should the Catholic Church approach the issue of cyberwar?

In the first instance, it should take a pastoral approach toward Catholics in the military. In terms of Catholic moral theology, we should help Catholics discern whether or not, or to what extent, they can, in good conscience, participate in a cyberwar that violates the principles about going to war (jus ad bellum) and about specific cyber operations within a war (jus in bello).

One key challenge in this regard is that cyberwar is conducted at such a distance from the actual people who suffer its consequences. It’s like conducting drone warfare, with people sitting at a desk in Utah launching strikes on people in Yemen. The way military people often deal with this is by compartmentalizing, separating what you do for your job from who you are as a person. This is not good. It fractures the psyche. The cure is to integrate oneself, which in a military setting involves seeing the people on the receiving end of a cyberwar as real people — people whose electricity will go out, who won’t have heat, who won’t have access to their ATMS, who are in hospitals awaiting surgery, who will die, all because the infrastructure of their city or country has been devastated by a U.S. cyberattack.

Beyond this, the Church must continue challenging the way modern warfare almost inevitably degenerates into total war. The onset of cyberwar is yet another instance of the modern bureaucratic state utilizing whatever means available in order to pursue its imperialistic aims and purposes.

Catholics should set about resisting cyberwar just as they’ve resisted drone war, nuclear war, lethal embargoes which are acts of war, any and all war that lays waste to so many people’s lives, especially the poor who always bear the most hardships of war.  In this regard, it is enheartening to be connected with organizations such as Voices for Creative Nonviolence, which sponsors peacemaking trips to the Middle East, and with protest groups such as the King’s Bay Plowshares who are in court proceedings now for protesting nuclear weapons. They are embodying the sign of peace in a time of forever expanding war.

Anything else faithful Catholics should be thinking about in this new era?

Trotsky said, “you may not be interested in dialectic, but dialectic is interested in you.” Often the word “dialectic” in this quote is replaced with the word “war,” and it could be replaced with “cyberwar” too. In any case, it’s going to happen. Inevitably, people will think of taking steps to prepare for it: where to go in a blackout, getting a wood burning stove, a generator perhaps, or even taking your house and property off the grid. This is not a bad idea. We’d live closer to the earth and the weather.

Most importantly, we need to beware of the ominous aspects of the cyber-universe we have created, how it has advanced the powers of the surveillance state. In 2013, Edward Snowden, the government contractor, went public with what he knew about how the National Security Agency collects bulk data on its citizens. We need to heed his warnings. As he wrote in an email to Laura Poitras, who directed the documentary film “Citizenfour”:  “for now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, every subject line you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited.”

As I see it, Snowden is a hero of our time. We hear the phrase “erosion of privacy” when it comes to cyberspace, but really it has been a wash out, a flood.

And this is true of corporations, too: Facebook, Google, and the rest. It’s chilling how deeply dependent we’ve become on social media, how pervasively we’re shaped by cyber-culture. The lure of sharing photos and connecting with college flames has rendered us vulnerable to the vultures of surveillance capitalism. We need to disengage from our screens, from phony forms of cyber-community and re-engage in real community, read real books, keep company with people who are really there.

One of the most important parts of Mass these days comes at the beginning when the person at the pulpit reminds us to turn off our phones. It’s a reminder that the most important things in life come to us via flesh and blood, or, better yet, in the forms of body and blood.

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