One of the moral issues that President-elect Barak Obama will have to deal with as President came in the letters of congratulations that he received when he won the election. Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai included in his message:
Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. . . . This is my first demand of the new president of the United States — to put an end to civilian casualties.
(See, Associated Press, Afghan president demands Obama end civilian deaths)
The first thing we need to do is to put this in a more realistic context. There is no way to end civilian casualties. Even in the United States, in the normal course of enforcing our laws, there are civilian casualties. If we were to give our police force the instruction of making sure, above all else, that no civilian ever be killed, we would render them so ineffective that . . . well, actually, so ineffective that the people will end up being indiscriminately killed by criminals, resulting in a great many civilian deaths.
The question is whether American policy is concerned enough with civilian deaths – whether we should be trying harder to prevent them, or whether we are trying too hard.
Let’s look at the policy of “trying too hard” for a moment. To the degree that the American military is told to reduce civilian deaths, to that degree the enemy needs only to surround itself with human shields. A terrorist leader needs only to surround himself with an entourage of women and children and a policy banning civilian deaths would render him untouchable.
So “trying too hard” to avoid civilian deaths is possible.
However, there “not trying hard enough” is also possible. If every rumor, no matter how ill founded, that some terrorist might be hiding in a building results in an air strike that destroys the building, then Americans are not trying hard enough to avoid civilian deaths.
In fact, one of the ways we can make sure to wipe out the terrorist is to simply kill every man, woman, and child in a region where terrorists are known to hang out. We simply start on one end and sweep through, and anybody not wearing an American uniform gets killed. It’s a simple way to make sure that we get the terrorists (at least in that region), and it opens up the territory for others to occupy.
Yet, I hope, a great many people would find such an option morally objectionable. This, of course, describes two end points on a continuum. Between a total prohibition on civilian deaths and genocide there are various degrees of safeguards that aim to protect civilians from harm while still allowing the good guys to go after the bad guys.
The vast majority of any institution of justice is devoted to this question. The right to a trial by jury, the rules under which a court of law operates, the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty”, are all a part of an institution whose purpose is to try to make sure that innocent people are not made to suffer harm in our quest to find and punish the guilty.
Even these safe-guards are not fool-proof. We have found out that a lot of people in prison on charges of rape and murder were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. We must assume that a great many people in prison where there is no DNA evidence to be examined were not guilty of those crimes.
Yet, it would be foolish for us to abolish the criminal justice system simply because it is not perfect, and innocent people still get caught in its net and end up spending their one and only life convicted of a crime they did not commit.
The reason for a criminal justice system is because, in addition to the threat we are under of becoming the victim of a crime, we are under the threat of suffering as much or more harm by being falsely convicted, or of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the government pursues a suspected criminal. The issue is to balance these threats and ask, “What is the biggest danger?”
So, what is the biggest threat to the life, health, and well-being of an Afghan (or Pakistani) child today. Does that child, in the next year, have a greater chance of being blown to bits by a terrorist with a bomb, or by an American fighter pilot with a missile? If the latter, then Obama needs to seriously consider tightening the rules to reduce the threat of harm to those children. America must remain the lesser threat of harm to civilians – not the greater threat. That’s what allows us to justifiably call ourselves the good guys.
Furthermore, we have to look at the lessons that we are teaching the world outside of Afghanistan.
Every time we blow up a group of civilians, and shrug it off or offer cheap and easy condolences, we tell the rest of the world that civilian casualties do not matter. Some of them will hate us for teaching the world a moral principle that is about as manifestly false as any principle can be. Some of them will learn our moral lesson and be more inclined to lead their lives on the maxim that civilian casualties do not matter.
Our conduct in Afghanistan affects conflicts throughout the world. If we teach a moral lesson that good people work hard to prevent civilian casualties, then we teach the world not to inflict civilian casualties, and civilians throughout the world are safer as a result.
If we teach the world that civilian casualties do not matter, some of them will adopt the principle that civilian casualties do not matter, and the world becomes more dangerous as a result.
President Bush has been completely and utterly lacking in any kind of moral sense. The lessons that he has been teaching the world for the past 8 years – that civilian casualties do not matter, that due process does not matter, that the laws passed by a duly elected congress do not matter, has weakened those institutions around the world. Every time Bush “justified” these moral transgressions, he gave others around the world moral permission to engage in those transgressions themselves, and put people in danger as a result.
One area where the Obama administration needs to immediately demonstrate improvements over the Bush administration is that Obama recognizes that there are certain moral constraints on human actions. One of those moral constraints is to make it the case that a child or his mother has less to fear from the America (where we take steps to minimize civilian casualties) than they do from its enemies (who routinely cause civilian casualties).
There is, of course, some risk in instituting this message. There is a risk that some terrorist might get away and that some of us might even die in a terrorist attack.
However, on this issue, I have to ask: What is the moral character of a person willing to risk his own life to protect an innocent child from severe harm? How does that compare to the moral character of a person who is willing to harm a child or kill a group of children to provide himself with a small measure of additional comfort and security?
There is certainly some risk associated with protecting children from being blown up by an American missile fired from an American airplane. However, for the sake of the children, good people are willing to accept that risk. It is a part of what makes him or her a good person.