On June 22, American law enforcement officials arrested seven members of a 'terrorist' group who were allegedly planning to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and other targets. (Actually, the group had no explosive and had made no plans to blow up any target, but had expressed an interest in doing so to an informant posing as a member of Al Queida.)
What surprises me is that the government sought an indictment by a grand jury and arrested these suspected terrorists without firing a shot. I would have expected the government to have called in an air strike, drop a few laser-guided bombs on the building, then do DNA analysis on the scattered body parts to see who they managed to kill.
Okay, honestly, I am not surprised at the failure to drop bombs on the building rather than arrest the terrorists. However, we do seem to have two methods of dealing with a building suspected of housing terrorist targets. In some cases we use indictments and arrest individuals without loss of life. In other cases, such as Damadola, Ishaqi, and the killing of Al-Zarqawi, we drop bombs on buildings even when children are inside.
The moral question that I want to investigate in today’s blog is: What are the rules that determine when dropping a stick of bombs on a building containing suspected terrorists is appropriate, and when is it inappropriate?
Let’s be honest; this is not an open-and-shut moral case. There are complicating factors.
There is, for example, the issue of dropping bombs on "suspected" terrorists. Read the news papers, and you will encounter a number of incidents where people were not allowed to fly, including young children and Senator Ted Kennedy, because their name matched those found on a government no-fly list. How many bombs have gone off in the homes of "suspected" terrorists who were just family members trying to live a simple life?
Also, the bombs have been dropped on buildings on the suspicion that a terrorist leader might be present, not on the certainty that he is present. I know of no way to determine how many bombs have been dropped where there was no legitimate target, but only a family member in the wrong place.
Another complicating factor involves “grudge informers.” These are people who want to get rid of a relative, neighbor, or business competitor legally by reporting them to the authorities and letting the authorities take care of them. A situation in which people are killing others on the mere suspicion of a terrorist leader in the area, I suspect that that at least one innocent family in Iraq has been blown to bits because a “grudge informer” managed to give a convincing story to the American military.
One way to prevent these types of problems is to establish procedural safeguards such as grand jury indictments, arrests, and trials.
This case calls up what ethicists call the "innocent shield" case. Evil people like to surround themselves with children because they know that good people are not inclined to kill children. This includes actions such as hiding behind a hostage during a standoff with police, chaining captured civilians to tanks before doing battle with partisans, , and using schools and hospitals as ammo storage dumps. When evil people take hostages, particularly children, officials have to consider the fact that the hostages may die when the authorities burst in to end the siege.
There has to be a moral permission for good people to take action against important enemy assets even though evil people have placed innocent shields with those assets. Otherwise, we give evil people an easy way to secure victory.
At the same time, good people should never find it too easy to kill innocent shields. We can tell when a person kills innocent shields too easily by the fact that he fails to use an easy alternative that would not involve killing, or he uses the tactic even when going after enemy assets that have low value.
The good person must even be willing to accept some additional risk or to increase the chance of failure if it means saving innocent lives. After all, what are good people fighting for, if not to protect the innocent from those who would cause them harm? Indifference over the plight of the innocent -- even an innocent shield -- would disqualify an individual from being classified as a ‘good person’.
What, then, are the criteria for killing innocent shields?
I want to get rid of one possible criterion immediately. Being an American is not a morally relevant category. There is no moral rule that states that Americans have a greater right to live than any other human. In fact, morality requires that all people be treated equally – that the wrongness of killing an individual is unaffected by his citizenship. An American child has no more rights than an Iraqi child. Dropping a bomb on a house in Pakistan where a family is sitting down for a holiday meal is no different than dropping a bomb on a house in Kansas on Christmas Eve.
If we are willing to drop a bomb on a house in Pakistan under conditions where we would not drop a bomb in Kansas (or permit a plane from another country to drop a bomb on a house in Kansas) then we are violating the foundational principle of moral equality. If we are not willing to allow others to do to us what we do to them, then we are implying that what we do is evil.
A good person does not consider the nationality of his victims before dropping a bomb. What does he consider?
First, he must begin with a presumption against killing innocent people. Innocent people never need to prove that their life should be spared. Rather, it is up to those who would act in ways that kill innocent people (including innocent shields) to prove that their actions are necessary. The burden of proof is on the killer, not his victims. If there is reason to believe that innocent people could die, the agent must immediately decide against the act, unless compelling reasons force him back onto the “yes” side of the line.
Second, the killer of innocent people must be in a position of weakness. There must be a real chance that evil may win the war and that good institutions are at risk of being destroyed unless the action is taken.
Seriously, if you are killing innocent people it means that you are either too vicious to care about their lives, or too impotent to do anything else.
It is not sufficient that there might be a loss of innocent life if the action is not taken. We are presuming that there will be a loss of innocent life if the action is taken. A parent, who can only rescue one child from a fire, may have a parental right to save his own child. However, he has no right to kill his neighbor’s child to save his own. He would not even have the right to kill his neighbor’s child to save his whole family. In a good person, the aversion to dealing a death blow to an innocent person should be strong enough to prohibit these types of actions.
Killing an innocent person requires that there be something much more important at stake, such as the institutions of a free and just society. In World War II and the Cold War, these conditions were met. Nazi Germany and the Former Soviet Union did not only have the will to destroy free societies, they had the means. The institutions of a free society were clearly at risk.
Are the institutions of a free society at risk in this so-called “war on terror?” The question is: Does Al Queida have a real chance of overthrowing our government and imposing on us against our will a set of rules to their liking?
I do not see how.
Al Queida may have the power to kill people and destroy buildings. However, it does not have the ability to destroy our institutions. At this point, politicians in Washington are the only people who have the power to destroy our institutions. Al Queida is relatively impotent.
This means that we might not have the justification required to take innocent life. We may not be going against people who are powerful enough to warrant these types of actions.
And if we kill innocent people when the institutions of a free and just society are not at risk, then we risk being as bad as those we hunt. At least, we are showing a comparable disregard for the taking of innocent life.
Are we truly fighting from a position of weakness such that we have no choice but to kill children?