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Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Moral Mathematics of Murder

With all the handwringing about Israel’s “disproportionate” response to hundreds of rockets (and thousands more in wait) being fired willy-nilly at its civilian population from over the Lebanese border, almost absolute silence in some quarters about Hizbollah itself.

So let's get to that part first.

As Alan Dershowitz reminded us the other day, you hide behind a civilian while you're shooting up the place and the civilian gets killed in the return fire, it's you who hold the moral (and legal) responsibility. Your intended victims have the right to shoot back---in the real world, self-preservation is always justified. (In fact, a fellow named Beccaria inveighed against capital punishment because even a justly condemned man has the right to fight for his life. An elegant argument, that.)

Theories of "just war" have been thrown around, too. Hizbollah has not a prayer of defeating Israel. Therefore, according to Just War Theory, Hizbollah has initiated an unjust war. The news coverage by the Arab media and the US press has highlighted the misery of Lebanese civilians, but war cannot be fought without mistakes or even criminal acts by the warriors, even the "good guys." Such is the nature of war, and of human beings.

But it was Hizbollah who loosed these remorseless dogs of war, and let's be clear, this is war. Ten thousand rockets pointed at Israel's civilian population make it so. The moral and legal responsibility is Hizbollah's.

That is (or should be) the easy part. However, the water gets deeper in a hurry.

It was Ward Churchill who opened a Pandora's Box that none of us really want to peer into. People are going to die. Civilians are going to die. The question is who, and whose.

A difficult moral case arises when a civilian population lets murderers operate freely in their midst. In Lebanon, Hizbollah has public offices, holds marches to cheering crowds, and certainly didn't move thousands of missiles to the Israel border without anyone noticing. And if Lebanese choose to live in apartments above Hizbollah headquarters, that's hardly Israel's fault either.

The fact is, Hizbollah is quite popular in southern Lebanon and nobody lifted a finger to stop them taking over for all practical purposes.

If there's a sniper in my neighbor's window killing my family, I'm taking him out even if I have to blow up the place, unless the sniper took the occupants hostage, which, for the sake of this illustration, is not the case in southern Lebanon. The "innocent civilians" there watched Hizbollah bring in 10,000 rockets with which to murder the Israeli civilian population. To maintain otherwise is naïve or disingenuous.

"They're Israel's problem," they must have thought. Guess again. They're yours. That's how it works in the real world. If it's my family or yours that is to die, sorry, you're out of luck, because you let the murderers in your front door.

Lebanon's civilian population brought this on themselves, and are morally complicit (indeed many are members of Hizbollah themselves, another inconvenient truth).

If Hizbollah starts launching rockets at Israel, and they have, Lebanon takes the consequences (and Israel has been good enough to drop leaflets warning of impending attacks, which of course the Hizbollah murderers do not).

I should be past being appalled at the moral cowardice of some of the more Enlightened folk in the West, who can only work up a decent indignation for Israel failing to meet the highest of standards and barely a word for the bad guys who have no standards at all. On the scale of moral outrage, Hizbollah is a 9, Israel a 2. Talk about "disproportionate."

I am past being surprised, but not yet jaded enough to be past being appalled.

There is also a confused moral calculus that somehow Israel's civilian casualties should be somewhat "proportionate" to Lebanon's. Utter rubbish.

The civilian deaths at Hiroshima were a great human tragedy, but not one fresh-faced Iowa GI was morally required to give his life to avert it, nor was President Truman obliged to sacrifice his own people. (Ironically, there are fresh-faced Iowa GIs voluntarily risking and giving their lives at this very moment to protect the lives of civilian Iraqis from Hizbollah's murderous cousins.) Perhaps Japan's individual civilians were in a sense blameless, but not as blameless as the Iowa GI.

The Japanese warlords, and Hizbollah, brought it on. The people of Japan and Lebanon let it happen.

Not one Israeli child should be asked to die at Hizbollah's hands. And for those who sit back and moralize in the comfort of a peaceful country, expecting those in mortally besieged ones to let their children die for your tut-tut morality, well, imagine a sniper just shot some of your children dead from next door. He has unlimited ammunition and is targeting more of them.

No, I don't think you are able to imagine that. It's far too real.


Evanston2 said...

Thanks Tom. Quite comprehensive and compelling argument for action by Israel. The questions of when and how to act are always difficult when using deadly force. And I doubt any decent person ever came out without doubts or wondering whether somehow you could have done otherwise. Still, at some point you need to act or the murderous thugs will continue to gain support and get bolder and bolder. I can only hope that the fledgling democracy in Lebanon can some day serve its people well, nationwide, so that insidious groups like Hezbollah cannot buy their way into the graces of the population via social services and other "good deeds."

James F. Elliott said...

Someone (I can't remember who) once noted that the obligation to minimize civilian casualties does not become an obligation to ensure no civilian casualties. This was, to my thinking, an important point that often gets obscured during the moralizing that accompanies war. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Israel's current campaign from a realist standpoint; "proportionality," a creation of the 24 hour news culture, isn't one.

Unfortunately, Israel's actions may end up with a worse situation than they began with. Israel cannot eliminate Hezbollah in this fashion. What they may succeed in eliminating, though, is the fledgling democracy of Lebanon. Interdiction campaigns, such as this one, historically end in failure.

There is one potentially interesting development: The Sunni-Shia Arab civil war, simmering lo these centuries, is a real threat to the Al Saud and Hashemite dynasties. In their minds, Israel is doing them a huge favor by taking on the Shia Hezbollah, agents of the Mullahs in Iran. It will be interesting to see what kind of devil's arrangements those regimes (and Egypt, where its hated Muslim Brotherhood (a Sunni group) has recently started supporting Hezbollah (so weird!)) will come to with Israel.

Hunter Baker said...

Just a technical point, but lacking a chance of success doesn't necessarily scuttle one's hopes of engaging in just war. The reasonable chance of success criterion is often termed one of the prudential criteria rather than a core part of the substantive theory, which is focused on peace with justice.

I don't think Hizbollah has a prayer (pardon the pun) of engaging in just war against Israel, but it ain't only because they can't succeed.

(semi-retired, but still a reader!)

Pastorius said...

You mentioned that Hizbollah has offices in Lebanon, and that they are popular. You did not mention that they are a political party which holds approximately 20% of the Lebanese Parliament.

They are an official arm of the Lebanese government. The idea that Lebanon can not control what Hizbollah does is absurd, or, if it is true, proves that Lebanon is a failed state, and as such is a danger to itself and the world at large.

Tlaloc said...

If the situation were one of Hibollah hiding among civilians and Israeli strikes against Hizbollah accidentallay killing said civilians you;d be right.

Unfortunately that is not really the case.

Israel has targetted ambulances, civilian vehicals flying white flags (and fleeing in compliance with the Israeli statements that civilians should flee certain areas that are going to be attacked, milk factories, power and water facilities, and so on.

Israel which has long boasted of their ability to guide munitions through an open window if they want and kill only a terrorist in a crowd of civilians has killed over 300 civilians and less than two dozen hizbollah fighters.

The math is clear: they aren't trying to minimize civilian casualities. There is simply no other way to understand how they can hit so many totally unaffiliated targets so well and their declared enemy so badly.

Wake up.

Amy and Jordan said...

With all due respect, I really don't think the concept of proportionality is a "creation of the 24 hour news culture."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives one articulation of the proportionality principle in the just war tradition: "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition."

This is, in fact, Prof. Bainbridge's complaint about the current conflict between Lebanon and Israel. I ask some questions about his analysis here, to which he and others respond. There's a nice summary of relevant links at Against the Grain.

Perhaps Japan's individual civilians were in a sense blameless, but not as blameless as the Iowa GI.

Sorry, Tom, but the need to distinguish between civilian and combatants is well-established in the just war tradition. You may not like it, but it's there, and I think it applies to both sides. I'm not sure I know anyone that has argued that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima met the conditions for jus in bello. Is that really what you are saying?

I do think there is much more critical attention being paid to Israel's actions than that of Hezbollah, but that may be as much a result of the lack of expectations people have for terrorist groups. It sort of goes without saying that they aren't conducting a just war. I think it does need to be explicitly stated more often, as Prof. Bainbridge does here, that just war principles "apply to everyone, not just Catholics. Just war is a part of both the natural law and the positive international law," and therefore Catholics, Hezbollah, Israel, and everyone else are held to the same moral standard.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks for the clarification, HB. Glad you're reading, and now I must become a regular consumer of AMSPECBLOG, to which you'll be a regular contributor.

Pastorius and Jordan, in the second half of my remarks, I'm peeking in the door that Ward Churchill opened, that in this day and age, the possibility exists that there are no civilians.

(Not a new savagery, necessarily, but a regression to the mean.

Now, I'm certainly not in blanket agreement: you don't offhandedly exterminate any women, chldren and old men in your way. But the concept bears examination. I wished to focus on the individual responsibility of the Lebanese civilian populace, and also to acknowledge the fact that the wars of the medieval period were between governments and "gentlemen," and so "Just War's" universal applicability is called into question.

In other words, how many of my children am I required to sacrifice to spare some of yours? Especially when you started the whole thing?

Tlaloc said...

"Especially when you started the whole thing?"

I'd be fascinated to hear your justification that hizbollah started the whole thing given that they only exist as a reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 80s.

Even looking at more modern times you find that Israel started the tit-for-tat illegal kidnappings that "started" the latest flare up.