Saturday, June 24, 2006

Killing/Capturing Terrorists

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?


Anonymous said...

Framing our current struggle with Al Queda as a "War on Terror", instead of the police action that it should be classified as, allows Americans to cross the line on these moral questions much more easily. War can be construed as Good vs. Evil where epic battles occur and morality doesn’t come into play. When you are in a war it’s our side against theirs. On the battlefield you don’t have time to determine if the person you are shooting at has actually done you any harm. His just being on the other side takes that requirement away. You can say that since he is evil, he will do me harm, so I am only doing good by killing him first.

It’s really not a surprise that in the current struggles there have been almost no engagements that would resemble wars of the past. No Battle of the Bulge or Gettysburg. It’s almost never possible for American soldiers to kill someone in Iraq and immediately be sure they’ve killed a member of Al Queda and not an innocent Iraqi.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious, you say someone "would not even have the right to kill his neighbor’s child to save his whole family." How far does this extend? If, by murdering one child, you could prevent the deaths of one thousand, would it be immoral to do so? Could one not argue that by NOT killing that one child, you have sentenced 1000 to death and are guilty of a crime 1000 times worse?

Anonymous said...

I'm going to diverge a little from your point here, if I may...
(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.)
If that is true, doesn't it mean that they haven't committed any crime other than thought crime? They're not even in illegal possession of a weapon.

They've made no attacks, have no weapons and no specific plans to attack anything. What exactly could they be charged with, if the administration wanted to pretend they still respected the rule of law?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am substantially in agreement with your claim. There is no "war on terror" -- at least in any sense in which war would be morally justifiable. War is legitimate only when others are using violence to threaten one's own institution and goverment -- when there is a real threat to wipe out or to conquer our nation. No such threat exists. No such cause for war exists.

The claim of a "war on terror" is political rhetoric used by those in power to maintain power. It is a tool for manipulating votes -- a tool that ignores fundamental principles of right and wrong used by those who are more interested in power than in principle.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your question is a common point of discussion in moral theory. I will seek to answer it in a post in a few days -- explaining how desire utilitarianism addresses this issue. Please stand by.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


All of the charges against these so-called "terrorists" are conspiracy charges. It is recognized in law that law enforcement officials do not need to wait until a crime is committed to act against those criminals. They do not need to wait, for example, until Person A kills Person B to interfere. They only need to have enough evidence to show an intent to kill -- that a person is a genuine threat to others -- to act.

I believe that the government's case is that in negotiating with somebody they believed was an Al Queida representative to become a terrorist cell that they have stepped over the line that allows the government to identify them as a threat to others and to take action.

I will leave it up to a court of law to decide if the government has enough evidence to prove conspirasy. This is one of the things that I like about courts of law -- somebody actually has to prove the accused worthy of punishment before punishing them.

This is in stark contrast to a system wherein suspicion alone justifies a death sentence -- an intent to kill the accused (without trial or a need to show one actually has proof of guilty) and a willingness to kill any innocent person who happens to be nearby.