Thursday, January 19, 2006

When is this justifiable?

Kevin Drum asks:

For the sake of argument, let's assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let's also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let's assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.

Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I'd sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I'm curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified?

This is a good question because it makes us question and articulate our principles. What are we about? What do we stand for? My answer is: the rule of law and the valuing (dare I say) the sanctity of each human life. Don't accept the Bushies' framing of the issue. Don't ask: in the (implicitly worthwhile) pursuit of the so-called War On Terror, is this action justifiable? Instead, look at it this way: GWB invaded another country (actually two). He started a war! And he made up the reasons for doing so. He invaded another country and, even if his reasons were based on facts, if any other country had done the same thing for the same reasons, what would have been the American reaction? or that of the rest of the world? How can we forget what Robert H. Jackson, the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, said:

"We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy."


What happened on 9/11 was a terrible thing. Nothing I am about to say should be characterized as defending or justifying those despicable acts. But they were not acts of war. In the simple historical sense of the word, a war involves nations and armies. I know how much Bush want us not to see this for what it is -- a criminal conspiracy and criminal acts causing death. As frustrating as this may be for those who understandably sought revenge, the people who committed these acts are dead. The appropriate course of action to have taken was to investigate what happened, to seek those who conspired, aided and abetted. They should have been arrested, charged and tried and, if found guilty, sentenced. There should have been an investigation into how it happened (why, as well, but that's another topic) and all reasonable efforts should have been employed to mitigate the risk of anything similar happening again.

Real leadership would have reassured the public that, while this terrible thing had happened, it was less likely for something similar to happen again now as a result of these efforts. It would have stressed the fact that the probability that any one of us would be killed in a future terrorist attack is much less than (pick your known risk... car crash, heart attack, cancer, drowning, even getting hit by lightening). They should have been honest in their risk assessments, taken reasonable precautions and reminded people that, while life will always be risky, their odds for personal safety were actually still good.

But instead, he terrorized his own people, with his now famous scare tactics, and to such an extent that they were willing to stand by while he -- the Great Leader - the Great Protector -- invaded a country and started a war in which many more innocent civilians have been killed by Americans than were killed by the 9/11 terrorists. So, if Kevin's question was: how many more innocents will it be justifiable to kill in this misbegotten adventure, my answer is: none!

The American efforts should be focused on pursuing the suspects in this conspiracy and they should be apprehended in accordance with reasonable standards. We should not be condoning the execution of suspects for crying out loud! How have we come to this juncture? We discuss whether it is "OK" to arrest people and hold them indefinitely without charge or access to legal advice or a trial or any kind of due process. We ponder when it's "OK" to torture people! And now we wonder how many innocents it's OK to kill in the hopes of executing someone who is suspected of committing a terrible crime. And, to top it off, we are expected to do this based on our trust of the intelligence (in either sense of the word), judgment and competence of Bush and his cronies...?!!!

I once asked a proponent of the invasion of Iraq that, if he suspected that Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden) was hiding in our home town, would he support the US Air Force bombing all of us into nothingness in the hopes that they would get the bad guy too? When people suspected of terrible crimes are located, are we to just lay waste to the entire neighbourhood? There are rules in war. There are rules of engagement. In that brutal reality, it's "OK" to sink an enemy ship or bomb an enemy base even when it's reasonable to suspect that there are troops therein who are not actually fighting against you. But this is not a war. Or, if this is now to be considered war, then what's to keep the authorities from declaring "war" on any criminals or their criminal activity. Where does this lead us?

The way civilized, law abiding, humanistic societies do it... you know, the "good guys", the way they do it is: carefully, responsibly, the way we would be proud of having done it. Otherwise, if we kill innocents to achieve our goals, how are we better than those we oppose? Is it not then the case that our actions (and therefore we ourselves) are no better than those we oppose? Will our justification be, to paraphrase Roosevelt, that we may be sons-of-a-bitches, but at least we are our sons-of-a-bitches?

So Kevin, in answer to your questions: under what circumstances would such an attack [killing innocents, in order to kill suspected terrorists] be justified?

Never! Not on my watch.

Update: Digby has his own response and, as always, it's worth reading.

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