June 19, 2006

Of Fundamental Moral Principles, and the Value of a Single Human Life

I've mentioned Jacob Hornberger and the wonderful work of The Future of Freedom Foundation on a number of occasions; see, for example, my essay, "Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo," which relies on Hornberger's invaluable writing.

A few days ago, I wrote about a fundamental issue regarding the invasion and occupation of Iraq that almost all politicians and our media ignore entirely:
This is the foundational point, one that is almost never acknowledged in our public debates. Iraq constituted no threat to us, and our leaders knew it. Therefore, our invasion and occupation of Iraq were and are naked acts of aggression. To fall back on the defense of "good intentions" is to confess that your actions have caused nothing but disaster and death -- but that you "meant well." None of the Iraqis who have suffered so grievously or who are now dead, and none of the Americans and others who have been horribly wounded or killed, gives a damn about anyone's intentions, good or otherwise. Neither should any decent and compassionate human being.
In his usual fashion, Hornberger is eloquent on the same point in today's column, entitled "Killing Iraqi Children":
In a short editorial, the Detroit News asked an interesting question:

"Some war critics are suggesting Iraq terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi should have been arrested and prosecuted rather than bombed into oblivion. Why expose American troops to the danger of an arrest, when bombs work so well?"

Here’s one possible answer: In order not to send a five-year-old Iraqi girl into oblivion with the same 500-pound bombs that sent al-Zarqawi into oblivion.

Of course, I don’t know whether the Detroit News editorial board, if pressed, would say that the death of that little Iraqi girl was “worth it.” Maybe the board wasn’t even aware that that little girl had been killed by the bombs that killed Zarqawi when it published its editorial. But I do know one thing: killing Iraqi children and other such “collateral damage” has long been acceptable and even "worth it" to U.S. officials as part of their long-time foreign policy toward Iraq.

This U.S. government mindset was expressed perfectly by former U.S. official Madeleine Albright when she stated that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from the U.S. and UN sanctions against Iraq had, in fact, been "worth it." By "it" she was referring to the U.S. attempt to oust Saddam Hussein from power through the use of the sanctions. Even though that attempt did not succeed, U.S. officials still felt that the deaths of the Iraqi children had been worth trying to get rid of Saddam.


Some would argue that such “collateral damage” is just an unfortunate byproduct of war. War is brutal. People get killed in war. Compared with the two world wars, not that many people have been killed in Iraq, proponents of the Iraq war and occupation would claim.

Such claims, however, miss an important point: U.S. military forces have no right, legal or moral, even to be in Iraq killing anyone. Why? Because neither the Iraqi people nor their government ever attacked the United States. The Iraqi people had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Thus, this was an optional war against Iraq, one that President Bush and his military forces did not have to wage.

The attack on Iraq was akin to, say, attacking Bolivia or Uruguay or Mongolia, after 9/11. Those countries also had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and so it would have been illegal and immoral for President Bush to have ordered an invasion and occupation of those countries as well. To belabor the obvious, the fact that some people attacked the United States on 9/11 didn’t give the United States the right to attack countries that didn’t have anything to do with the 9/11 attacks.

That made the United States the aggressor nation and Iraq the defending nation in this conflict. That incontrovertible fact holds deep moral implications, as well as legal ones, for U.S. soldiers who kill people in Iraq, including people who are simply trying to oust the occupiers from Iraq. Don’t forget that aggressive war was punished as a war crime at Nuremberg.
I note the following point of Hornberger's especially for Avedon Carol, who correctly emphasizes this issue repeatedly:
Moreover, what people often forget is that the United States is no longer at war in Iraq. This is an occupation, not a war. The war ended when Saddam Hussein’s government fell. At that point, U.S. forces could have exited the country. (Or they could have exited the country when it became obvious that Saddam’s infamous WMDs were nonexistent.) Instead, the president opted to have the troops remain in Iraq to “rebuild” the country and to establish “democracy,” and the troops opted to obey his orders to do so. Occupying Iraq, like invading Iraq, was an optional course of action.

As an occupation force serving a sovereign regime, U.S. forces are not engaged in a war but instead are simply serving as a domestic police force for the sovereign Iraqi regime. The problem, however, is that they’ve been trained as soldiers, not policemen.

The military mindset is totally different from the police mindset.
Hornberger has much more about this difference, which I highly recommend to your consideration. But I do want to mention this part of his argument:
That raises another distinction between the military and the police. It’s not difficult to see that the military holds the Bill of Rights in contempt, which is precisely why the Pentagon established its torture and sex abuse camps in Cuba and former Soviet-bloc countries — so as to avoid the constraints of the U.S. Constitution and any interference by our country’s federal judiciary.

It is not a coincidence that in the Pentagon’s three-year effort to “rebuild” Iraq it has done nothing to construct a judicial system that would have independent judges issuing search and arrest warrants or that would protect due process, habeas corpus, jury trials, and the right to counsel. To the military, all that is anathema, not only because it would presumably enable lots of guilty people to go free but also because it might inhibit the ability of the military to take out people without having to go through all those legal and technical niceties.
And here is the conclusion of Hornberger's article:
More important, all too many Americans have yet to confront the moral implications of invading and occupying Iraq. U.S. officials continue to exhort the American people to judge the war and occupation on whether it proves to be "successful" in establishing "stability." and "democracy" in Iraq. If so, the idea will be that the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, including countless Iraqi children, will have been worth it. It would be difficult to find a more morally repugnant position than that.
You should read Hornberger's column in its entirety.

For obvious reasons, neither our political leaders nor our media will confront this fact in a straightforward manner. As Hornberger says, to do so would be to acknowledge that our government and our military have acted in the most profoundly immoral manner imaginable. And, as I discussed in detail in "Morality, Humanity and Civilization," an attack on Iran would multiply the scope of the immorality involved by many factors.

Our widespread determination to avoid these fundamental issues leads to ludicrous results, including much of the reaction to the death of Zarqawi. Here I am not concerned with the fact that Zarqawi's death will not make the slightest bit of difference to Iraq's future -- although it certainly will not, the unceasing propaganda of our government to the contrary nothwithstanding. Zarqawi was a comparatively minor figure, and we have unleashed much larger forces. At the moment, it would appear that no one and nothing can control or diminish those larger forces to the required degree.

In the wake of Zarqawi's death, many supporters of Bush and our foreign policy strongly condemned those of us who failed to adopt the celebratory tone they demanded. In the case of the condemnations of Michael Berg, Nick Berg's father, such condemnations were especially reprehensible and sickening. I myself do not agree with Michael Berg's pacifism -- but he has held his views for many decades, and they constitute a deeply principled, consistent position. That he refuses to give up his principles when many others would is a cause for admiration, not condemnation. Our world would be a significantly better place if more people regarded their own convictions with the degree of seriousness that Mr. Berg does.

The rest of us were condemned in a similar manner. "Look how consumed you are by hatred for America and for Bush!" the hawks bleated. "You can't even be happy that this monstrous son of a bitch has been killed!" Zarqawi was certainly a monstrous son of a bitch, and I shed no tears for him personally. But am I happy that he was killed? No, I most certainly am not -- because our very presence in Iraq represents an act of unforgivable immorality. We should never have been there to kill him in the first place. But that is precisely the point that the hawks want all of us to forget, and to never acknowledge under any circumstances.

This is what happens what you forget basic moral principles, and when you seek to obliterate the chain of events that brought us to where we are today. Each event is judged in isolation, completely disconnected from every relevant fact. But judgments made in this fashion are completely meaningless and devoid of content: events occur in a complex, specific context, and it is that context that reveals their meaning and their moral import. Discard the context, and judgments are utterly arbitrary. Yet this is essentially the manner in which all our national debates now take place.

There is one final point to be made about all this -- and that has to do with the supreme value of a single human life. In our desensitized, dehumanized age, most people have almost no appreciation for what I'm talking about, and our political establishment and media only make this grievous failing worse. Each of us is unique; not one of us can be replaced. Each of us has a family, loved ones, friends and a life that is a web of caring, interdependence, and joy. When even one of us is killed or horribly injured for no justifiable reason, the damage affects countless people in addition to the primary victim. Sometimes, the survivors are irreparably damaged as well. Even the survivors' wounds can last a lifetime.

This is of the greatest significance. There is nothing more important or meaningful in the world. No moral principle legitimizes our invasion and occupation of Iraq, just as it will not justify an attack on Iran. Therefore, when the first person was killed in Iraq as the result of our actions, the immorality was complete. The crime had been committed, and no amends could ever suffice or would even be possible. That many additional tens or hundreds of thousands of people have subsequently been killed or injured does not add to the original immorality with regard to first principles. It increases its scope, which is an additional and terrible horror -- but the principle is not altered in the smallest degree.

So think of the five-year-old Iraqi girl who is no more, or think of any one of the countless other victims of this criminal war and occupation. Think of their families and friends. Think of the lives that have been altered forever, and of the wounds that will never heal. Think about all of that.

Contemplate the devastation and the horror. Make it real to yourself. And ask yourself if forgiveness is possible.

[More on these and related issues, and about the latest WMD nonsense, here.]