A reader writes:

You mentioned in your first post on this that you thought you might be missing something from Just War, and I think I know what it is: the "supreme emergency exemption", a controversial part of the Just War story which posits, as you can probably guess, that in certain grave emergencies you basically do what you need to do to survive, even if it's morally untenable by standard jus in bello norms. As you can imagine, this is controversial stuff: you won't find anything about it in international law, but it does have its supporters, among them Rawls, Walzer, and most famously, Winston Churchill.

Walzer's argument is probably the most succinct version and it goes like this: a country which is a victim of aggression, and which has jus ad bellum on its side, can, in extreme emergencies, jettison the norms of jus in bello (the example which he offers for this is, not surprisingly, Nazi Germany). In this case, Walzer argues, even deliberately killing civilians could have been justifiable in order to try and stave off Hitler. His argument is derived largely from Churchill's decision to loose the Royal Air Force on german cities, and premised on the idea that the threat at hand could not simply be measured in terms of occupation or "run-of-the-mill" injustices, but rather that it posed something so morally reprehensible as to be "evil objectified in the world."

So how does all of this relate to Israel and Gaza? For starters, when a country sees itself as having just cause, as Israel invariably does, and when it feels that its very survival is at stake, it often feels morally justified in abandoning the prohibition of hitting civilians and so forth. Now, I'm not saying that Israel is deliberately targeting civilians, or even that this argument is right, but simply that according to this supreme emergency argument, you can see how the broader logic carries out -- jus in bello gets tossed and the bombs start dropping.

But the real question we ought to be asking, it seems to me, is whether this sort of argument is morally acceptable. The problem -- whether it's Israel in 2009, or America in 2002 -- is that countries nearly always argue that threats are supreme emergencies which threaten their existence or way of life.  What's more, if this caveat is used every time you bring up Just War, you've got to ask yourself what kind of theory you have on your hands. Of course states aren't going to like arguments that seek to restrain the means at their disposal.

I'm in agreement with the last paragraph. And it remains an absurd proposition that Israel is at that kind of threat from Hamas as currently constituted.

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