Is the intentional killing of civilians okay? Thursday, May 5 2011 

First, let me apologize for the long delay between posts. I’m busy in life, and I am not afforded the free time to do research and write extensively that I had as a student at university. Also, I am posting this because it is a subject that particularly touched me, though I do have several posts regarding economics and democracy that I’ve had lined up for quite some time. There have been plenty of subjects I would have loved to write about since I put my writing on hold. But this I would like to address right now.

The question I pose in the title seems like an easy one to answer. To any decent human being, the answer should be no. The conclusion seems to go unquestioned. The idea that the killing of innocent lives is morally wrong and unjust is so embedded in the mores and norms of our culture, and countless others across the globe, the questions seems nearly absurd on its face. Yet, I’ve recently found myself asking the question and defending the forgoing conclusion in a Facebook discussion. Surely, though, the only opposition would be from a militant extremist, some brainwashed fascist, or simply a troll?

Actually, the tiff was with none other than Fouzi Slisli, a human relations professor at SCSU. (This is the same professor whom, by the way, I vehemently defended on this blog and in the SCSU University Chronicle regarding a presentation he and others had gave on the attack on Gaza in 2009, which was interrupted by professor Edelheit. This is also the same professor I praised, both here and in the University Chronicle, for their trip to Palestine and their presentation of that trip.) I do not pretend to admit that Dr. Slisli does not take outspoken stances on several issues, some of which I agree with, but this one goes beyond the pale.

This started when the professor posted a link to a Telegraph article titled “Muslim group claims royal wedding is legitimate terror target.” Seemingly approving the notion, he says, “They’re not saying they are going to target the wedding; they’re just saying the wedding is a legitimate target and might be targeted by others…” I reply, saying, “No such thing as a legitimate target that has as its essence a civilian population.” The conclusion seems obvious enough. But not for Dr. Slisli.

Dr. Slisli contends that the U.S.—and the West in general—has targeted civilians and has deliberately killed civilians. This is undoubtedly true. I agree with the professor here. In fact, I wrote on this blog about the criminal bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, describing them as “One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history.” The intentional killing of civilians is a sad reality of U.S. foreign policy and is a reason why the U.S. is one of the leading terror states. However, the fact that the West attacks civilians in no way justifies the position that killing civilians is okay. It should seem obvious enough that the actions of the West do not dictate morality. A moral theory based on such a concept would be shallow, as only a few moments of thought and reflection evidences.

Certainly the West’s behavior vis-à-vis its rhetoric makes it hypocritical. But as logic might remind us, hypocrisy does not validate an argument. Tu quoque (“you too”) is a kind of fallacious argument that aims to discredit a conclusion because its arguer does not adhere to said conclusion. But the fact that the U.S. has engaged or is currently engaged in targeting civilians has no bearing on the question of its legality or its morality. As I stated to him, “The question, though, isn’t whether the West has attacked civilians. The question is what is the proper response? Is it proper to attack the civilians of the offending nation—say you or I? That is to say, is it legitimate [to] deliberately target civilians for any reason? The answer is no. And the answer doesn’t change just because Western governments have violated the rule. Sure, it tells us a lot about the moral culture of Western nations. But if it’s wrong for the West that also means its wrong for everyone else. That’s just the elementary principle of moral universality.” (Many readers know that I’ve repeatedly mentioned the principle of moral universalism on this blog, and I’ll return to it here later.) The principle of universalism dictates that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others (more stringent ones, in fact) and vice-versa. If it’s wrong for the West to kill civilians, it is wrong for you and your cohorts to do the same; if it is right for you to kill civilians, it is right for the U.S.

Dr. Slisli contends that moral universalism, “lofty as it is, does not capture the complexity of the issue.” While I believe the principle is both basic and elementary (far from lofty)—the necessary basis for any decent moral theory—the professor takes issue with it. He claims I am “making the weaker sides to a conflict uphold a morality that you know full well the stronger side does not/will not uphold.” But again, that has no bearing on the question of either its legality or its morality. In any case, Dr. Slisli says Islam offers a “contingency plan” that universalism does not in situations for those who suffer the transgressions of others: “the law of equality.” This law states, “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Those from the Christian tradition can think of a similar idea found in the Bible (“an eye for an eye”). Thus, “if anyone transgresses this universal law against you, the Qur’an instructs, then Muslims are allowed to transgress likewise against the enemy,” posits Dr. Slisli. (Of course, “Allah prefers if Muslims have restraint.”) He therefore concludes that, while it’s preferable to have restraint, it is not necessary when “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” (emphasis his). He does claim, however, “I am not stating my own opinion here” and that he is “merely explaining the legal frameworks that the Qur’an sets for the rules of war and the legal status of civilians and civilian infrastructure.” I’ll leave the latter claim for more competent scholars.

In any case, the phrase that Muslims ought to show restraint unless “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” in an important one because it requires the person using force to demonstrate that in fact it is for the purpose of protecting oneself. So certainly the onus is on the attacker to demonstrate that attacking innocent civilians is an act of “protecting oneself.” And quite frankly I don’t think the onus can be met. In fact, I would venture to say that it would have the opposite effect: it would endanger oneself more. The reason should be obvious, but I’ll return to it later.

At this point, the discussions turns ugly. Dr. Slisli perverts my statements, saying my act of “Preaching non-violence while the powerful is sawing through the weak is, in practical terms, nothing but a complicity by inaction.” Careful readers will note that at no point do I ever “preach non-violence,” and most certainly not to those stricken by violence. In fact, I do believe violence is legitimate, but only under very certain circumstances, and the onus is on the perpetrator to demonstrate that violence is appropriate. So, for example, the use of force for the purpose of self-defense is legitimate. You can find this precedence in article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense has always been a legitimate act. Thus, I fully support the Quaranic injunction that allows for the use force to “protect oneself.” Again, though, one has to demonstrate that the use of force is, in fact, self-defense.

To attack innocent civilian populations under the guise of self-defense is an act reserved only for the most morally depraved. And I do not pretend that this is an uncommon excuse for violence and terror. Take, say, Hitler when he invaded Poland and began his slaughter of Jews and millions of others; he did so under the pretense of self-defense. That’s always the pretense. We could go through a long list, but I doubt that would be necessary.

So let’s summarize. According international law, Quaranic injunctions, and elementary morality, self-defense is legitimate. The use of force, violence, etc. is legitimate insofar as it can be demonstrated to be legitimate, for example for the purpose of self-defense. Attacking those who have not attacked you does not qualify as self-defense. Ergo, the killing of innocent civilian lives is illegitimate and is deeply immoral. It is for this reason that such acts are outlawed, condemned (nearly) universally, is considered terrorism, and is a grave abuse against human rights.

Yet, the professor is having none of it. He clings to the claim that, because the U.S. does it, it’s okay for everyone else to do it. He ponders, “If the West refuses to apply the universal laws of common decency with people A, B and C, why should people A and B and C apply the laws of common decency with the West?” He gives two reason why A, B, and C might. He says either they would because “the balance of power OBLIGES THEM to uphold the laws of common decency” while the other side does not—i.e., they are too weak to retaliate. The second is because “People A, B and C are ‘better people’ and although the West doesn’t deal with them decently, they CHOOSE to act and be better.” He admits the latter case demonstrates “admirable strength because it produces moral rectitude.” Yet, he says this is not the path to follow, because it is a deceit by the West to prevent its victims from retaliating. He wonders, “Is it a coincidence you think that intellectuals in colonial societies have always advised the colonized to use non-violence?” He claims the idea that we ought not attack innocent civilians has “sinister uses as a weapon to disarm populations …”

Therefore, Dr. Slisli concludes, the proper order of things is for A, B, and C to “apply common decency with People D, E and F and EVERY OTHER people who submit to the universal laws of common decency.” But should someone not adhere to the “universal laws,” then A, B, and C “also HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THAT COMMITMENT VOID IF THE OTHER SIDE FLAGRANTLY VIOLATES IT.” There’s a problem with this argument, though. A law is not “universal” if it is not applied universally. Of course, what the professor really meant to say, if he were being a little more honest, is, “it’s wrong for them to do it to me, but it’s okay for me to do it to them.” And it’s a demonstration of the sheer hypocrisy found in those defending the attacks on innocent lives. And that’s a vile maxim that operates nearly everywhere: it’s a crime if they do it, but not when I do it. If you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what one might call a “universal law.”

Finally, an argument made by others (and hinted at by Dr. Slisli when he accuses me of “a complicity by inaction”) is that innocent civilians really aren’t innocent at all. (In a separate posting, Dr. Slisli contends the innocents being targeted by al-Qaeda, including Muslims, are “the Crusader-Zionist alliance and those who collaborate with them,” thus fair game. But, “At any rate, this is an inter-Muslim debate in which Americans have no business sticking their nose.” When innocent American lives are at stake, I believe this to be an issue in which we might have the right to stick our nose, so I’ll continue.) One commenter notes, “We are all party to what our government/military does until it stops,” as if it’s a valid argument for attacks on civilians. But if they commenter, whom I’ve also defended elsewhere, agrees with me that the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wrong, as I suspect they do, then it is wrong for terrorists to bomb us here. Just because these were citizens of Imperial Japan make them no more a legitimate target than you or I simply because we are U.S. citizens. So in the same vein, the attack on the World Trade Center was no more legitimate than the U.S. and Israel’s punishment of Gazan citizens for voting the wrong way in a free election. They both represent an illegitimate and immoral use of force.

So back to the original topic of the royal wedding, just because the spectators of the royal wedding are citizens of the country, or merely residents, or merely tourists, or merely bystanders does not make them a legitimate target. And, as it was hinted in the previous sentence, attacks on civilian populations do not even assure one that those targeted are only nationals of that country, as there could very easily be non-associated agents within the same population. But even if we could assume it was only nationals within the civilian population being targeted, is nationality ever a legitimate basis for attack? I suspect the commenter who says we are all party to our government’s crimes also believes that other discriminations based on nationality are wrong. So if I asked her if it’s okay for us to make certain nationalities pay more in taxes or if it’s okay for us to put certain nationalities in internment camps or maybe even okay for us to toss certain nationalities into furnaces (because of the crimes their nations committed, of course), I’m confident she’d say no. Yet there is such a disconnect to the point that she see nothing wrong in the idea that it’s okay for innocent civilians to be subjected to terror attacks because of what their government has done. And that brings me to the final point, which I’ve discussed throughout this blog, which is that, even to the extent that I do live in a “democracy,” my influence on policy is basically near zero. Democracy is mostly nominal and is defined in procedural terms: I pull a lever every four years and keep quiet and to myself in the time in between. Does that make me responsible to some extent? Maybe one could argue so. But it certainly does not make me a legitimate target for attacks, nor does it make Dr. Slisli, nor the aforementioned commenter—neither of whom, I’m sure, are ready to admit they are vile war criminals deserving death.

I understand the importance of criticizing one’s own crimes. Again, to the extent that I do live in a democracy and free society, I can make some effort to address them. I take seriously Dr. Slisli’s argument that, “If you want to talk universalism, then you should make the aggressor stop aggression FIRST …” Those who have read my blog know well my critique of state crimes, particularly those of the U.S. That has always been my focus. A dishonest person is one who criticizes the crimes of others but does not reflect on his own. But that does not make the crimes of others any less of a crime. This is a moral truism we should not easily let escape from our minds.

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The double standard in foreign policy Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

In light of my recent post on the economic liberalization policies during the 1980s and onwards, I was hoping to discuss what is today being referred to “globalization.” Something else has been on the top of my mind lately, however, so that post will wait. What I wish to discuss instead is something that I have referred to numerous times on blog, which is the idea of moral universalism and specifically as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.

I promised someone a while ago I would discuss the Afghanistan War, and unfortunately I have been putting that off (along with most other issues dealing with foreign policy). The issue, in fact, is fairly complex but is one that can be simplified in terms of discussing the morality of it. The simple question we ought to ask ourselves, at all times, is whether what is right or wrong for us also right or wrong for others?

This is a very simple moral question and deals with what’s called moral universality. Namely, we should apply to ourselves the standards we place on others. I think Noam Chomsky, a leading and influential public intellectual, offers a good description of this moral principle: “… the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. 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.” He explains, “Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.” So, back to the question, do we follow this basic moral principle?

The answer to the question is a resounding no. This is plainly evident from my discussion of Israeli and U.S. war crimes in Palestine. It’s merely assumed, by virtue, that U.S. is allowed if not obligated to violate international law and human rights. I referenced something U.S. Justice Robert Jackson said during the Nuremberg Trials that also deals with the idea of moral universalism: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

But this is something that cannot even be comprehended in the United States, even among intellectuals. Saying we should apply some basic standards to ourselves (minimally, those we apply to others) would be considered absurd in some circles, if comprehended at all. For example, some people use the September 11, 2001, attacks as the justification for criminal wars and occupations of two destitute countries. Is that the correct response to terrorism? Well, let’s ask what standards we place on others. How should the myriad countries, usually poor and defenseless, across the globe react to Western state terrorism? Let’s take the extreme yet uncontroversial example of the United States’ terror campaign that President Reagan launched against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands dead and its economy in ruins even to this day. Who of those advocating the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq also advocate the bombing of Washington by Nicaragua? Who in the 1980s was saying Nicaragua should declare war against the U.S.? Would Nicaragua have the right to targeted assassinations of our terrorist leaders and those who support them? The answers lead us, invariably, to the conclusion that what’s right for us is wrong for them. We cannot even rise to a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for them is wrong for us too.