Friday, January 20, 2006

Not justified
Kevin Drum makes a statement that demonstrates that he is different type of liberal than I am.
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?

I do not think the answer is pretty plainly yes, and I'm a little shocked that he does.

Let me put forward my own thought experiment. Let's keep all of his basic assumptions: we have intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders are in a certain house, the intelligence is at least partially correct (some al Qaeda, but not as big as we hoped), and there are 18 genuinely innocent bystanders also in the building (by "genuinely innocent" I mean, they don't know that the others are wanted terrorists). Now let me change one condition: the house is in suburban Kansas City (that means the 18 genuinely innocent people upstairs are white American Christians). Is it still acceptable to blow up the house and all in it to get at an unknown number of bad guys of unknown value?

I think the answer is pretty plainly no.

Keep in mind that neither Kevin nor I are talking about what really happened in Pakistan, we are talking about his hypothetical situation. To me, the key condition in his hypothetical is that the majority of the people in the house are "genuinely innocent bystanders." This requires that the people in the house are not only non-terrorists themselves, but that they also be unaware of the nature of their guests. If they know that the guests are being hunted by the United States, then they have knowingly taken the risk of being blown up. In most of the Muslim world this is part of the laws of hospitality: the host accepts the risk of defending the guest from his enemies and the guest is honor-bound to inform the host of the risk before an offer of hospitality is made or accepted. However, this digression is not really relevant to the choice made by the Americans unless our intelligence also told us whether the other inhabitants of the house were "genuinely innocent bystanders" or knowledgeable protectors.

Kevin's last question makes no sense, "under what circumstances would such an attack be justified?" If we change the circumstances, it's not the same attack. Kevin's primary question is essentially "is it okay to murder five innocent people to execute one bad guy?" The essence of his follow-up, then, is "how about four? Three?" My answers are no, no, and stop it, you're starting to annoy me. If he persists, I get out the sharp stick and poke him.

Everyone knows that, realistically speaking, innocent people get killed in wars. That's one of the reasons why going to war is such a serious decision. But to accept that innocent people will be killed is not the same as deciding that we will kill this particular group of innocent people. Even people who are in favor of execution (and I'm not one) are supposed to be against murder. People who think America should demonstrate a higher amount of idealism and ethical clarity (and I am one) will be appalled at the very idea.

PZ Myers adds his two cents worth.

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