In a world politics course I have with professor Aref Hassan, we were discussing some aspects of World War II today. In discussing the evilness of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Dr. Hassan also made the point that deliberately creating a weapon for the sole purpose of maximizing human death (i.e. the atomic bomb) is also evil. I’m glad he raised the point. One student, a bit older and seemingly knowledgeable of WWII events and military history in general (I believe he served in military), replied by stating that, because it may have led to fewer American casualties, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 was justifiable. Was it?
As I pointed out in my last post on moral universalism, namely as it applies to U.S. foreign policy, there’s an easy way to judge this. And that’s to ask yourself whether what is right or wrong for is us also right or wrong for others. That is, do we apply to ourselves, at a minimum, the same standards we apply to others? Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose Nazi Germany, which was also attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, decided to drop atomic bombs on, say, Minneapolis and Boston. Despite murdering hundreds of thousands and leaving many more to succumb to the brutal effects of nuclear fallout, the Nazis defend it, saying it ended the war and prevented many Nazi casualties. Would anyone accept this?
No one accepts that argument. Okay, so we do not even rise to a minimal level of morality and, as I quoted Chomsky in my earlier post, “those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” But let’s try to talk about the appropriateness of the response anyway.
Would it be right for anyone to massacre, through the deliberate targeting of civilian cities, hundreds of thousands of civilians and innocent people with the justification of it saving more lives than it ended? (This is a more generous argument since the original one only states that combat deaths were reduced through the bombing; we can be even more generous and simply ask if it is right under any circumstance.) This is the utilitarian approach for justifying terrorism. (But this accepts the conclusion that it saved more lives and ended the war. One should not accept this conclusion so easily, as we know the war was already in its last throes and was militarily unnecessary according to numerous authorities. This was more about showing might and instilling terror than it was about military objectives.) As I pointed out in my discussion of President Bush’s use of torture against human beings, there have been attempts by some to justify evil and human rights abuses with the utilitarian argument that it’s right because it ultimately saves lives. As I said, accepting this principle also means we must accept the “repugnant conclusions” that come with it, including accepting the most heinous and monstrous crimes against humanity if doing so saves more lives than it ends. Murdering one innocent human being, for example, is right if it possibly saves two more. That’s not something most people are willing to do. Most people, instead, accept that some things are simply always wrong to do, no matter what, including the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.
This idea is manifested in the numerous international laws and treaties, not the least of which include the Geneva Conventions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that outlaw the deliberate targeting of civilians during war or killing of innocent human beings (i.e. murder). So, yes, President Truman committed a grave war crime and it being “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.” Was it terrorism? In fact, it’s one the clearest examples of state terrorism. How do we define terrorism? There are a lot of definitions; the U.S. defines it as “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…” The U.N. also has multiple definitions, one of which include “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” So, yes, the U.S., under the auspices of President Truman, committed a heinous act of terrorism, and one of the worst in human history.
Howard Zinn, a historian, champion of liberty and author of A People’s History of the United States, writes, “if the word ‘terrorism’ has a useful meaning (and I believe it does, because it marks off an act as intolerable, since it involves the indiscriminate use of violence against human beings for some political purpose), then it applies exactly to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” This becomes plainly obvious when we consider the masterminds of this attack did so in order to instill the maximum amount of terror in the civilians of Japan and not for combat or military purposes. What’s more, writes Mark Seldon, the bombings “broke the fragile remaining taboos on civilian bombing. This deployment of air power against civilians would become the centerpiece of all subsequent U.S. wars, a practice in direct contravention of the Geneva principles, and cumulatively the single most important example of the use of terror in twentieth century warfare. As we mourn the 2,800 victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, including Americans and citizens of more than twenty countries, we should simultaneously recall the millions of civilians who have been victims of American bombing and other acts of terror during and after World War II.”