I am sorry to report that I must add to my already considerable moral burden yet another set of murders committed by the U.S. government, funded by my taxes, and allowed by my complacency. As of March 19, 2011, I have fresh Libyan blood on my hands and on my soul. The U.S. (and U.K.) bombing of Libyan targets with at least 112 U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles was a fundamentally immoral act, and I fear it marks only the beginning of the murders that are to come.
According to initial reports, 48 people were killed and more were wounded in these opening air strikes. This has usually been reported in the Western media with the disclaimer that this is only “according to Libyan officials” and “cannot be independently verified.” While reporters may have some legitimate cause to question whether the so-called Libyan officials have inflated the true number of casualties of foreign military action, I find it telling that the same standard of journalism is rarely applied to the statements of U.S. government officials. Regardless of this implicit hypocrisy, the implication beneath these disclaimers is that less than 48 Libyans were probably killed in this particular assault and most or all of these Libyans were not the “civilians” they were reported to be by the Libyan state-run media. Instead, it is implied, those killed were likely “combatants” who were working at (or happened to be in close proximity to) military targets such as anti-aircraft weapons.
For the sake of argument, let me take this downplaying of so-called “collateral damage” to the extreme and base this discussion on the unlikely idea that only one Libyan was killed by these 112 cruise missiles—each likely carrying a 1,000-lb. warhead for a combined total of 112,000 pounds of explosives—and that this individual was a loyal member of the Libyan military. In the eyes of the Libyan rebels, much of the international community, and apparently much of the American populace, this murdered Libyan was therefore a “bad” person. Again, for the sake of argument, I will concede this point.
Even in these most unlikely of circumstances, the initial U.S. military intervention in the Libyan civil war would remain a grossly immoral act. I do not know of any major religious or secular moral code that allows for the killing of a human being by another person or persons unknown to the victim without any semblance of due process. Even Osama bin Laden does not go that far; his religious justification for the murder of Americans (though disputed by most Muslims) is based on the idea that we have responsibility for our government’s actions and furthermore that Islam allows for murder in defense of the Islamic community. Osama bin Laden is rightly vilified for his moral philosophy and the resulting murders, but let us consider the moral philosophy underpinning the actions of the U.S. government on March 19 as it murdered one (or 48) Libyan(s) in the name of human rights.
Starting from the beginning of our victim’s story, imagine a baby who is born in the nation of Libya, grows up under a vicious dictatorship never knowing the freedoms cherished by the people of the United States, and ends up serving in the Libyan military. When many of the Libyan people rise up against the government after years of repression, the unelected and brutal Gadhafi regime attempts to crush the revolution violently. We cannot know what motivations drive this young soldier, and we cannot know how he or she feels about the Gadhafi regime or its actions. Nevertheless, we have already decided that this person was actively involved in the armed defense of the regime and was therefore “bad.” On March 19, this soldier reports for duty as normal and is killed in a powerful explosion caused by a U.S. cruise missile launched from a nearby warship. No one in the U.S. government or citizenry had any particular grievance against this Libyan; he or she was simply on the “wrong” side of a local conflict. Therefore, we cannot argue that this individual Libyan “deserved” to die for his or her specific actions (since we do not know what they were); instead, it follows that under our moral philosophy this Libyan deserved to die purely for the actions of his or her government. Unlike the concept of collective punishment, in which a larger group is punished for the actions of certain individuals and which is a crime under international law, this is a philosophy of individual punishment in which an individual may be punished for the crimes of a larger group (his or her government and its proxies) even if the individual is not responsible for those crimes.
As it happens, this precise line of thinking represents one component of Osama bin Laden’s argument for why it is morally acceptable to kill Americans. As I mentioned above, the other major component is that (in bin Laden’s view) Americans—through the actions of their government—are directly attacking the Muslim community, and therefore Muslims may respond violently in self-defense. The self-defense aspect of the argument is absent from the American rationale for so-called humanitarian military intervention, in which we kill some people in order to protect other people, none of whom threaten us in any way.
That being the case, even if we reduce our moral standards to those of Osama bin Laden, we still must acknowledge that the murder of the one (or 48) Libyan(s) on March 19 was morally unjustifiable. Consider, then, the moral implications if the true number of deaths is closer to the 48 reported by Libyan authorities instead of just one, or if some of those murdered Libyans were truly civilians rather than combatants. There are some who will argue that the murder of human beings (even innocent human beings) is a reasonable price to pay for the “greater good”; I am not one of them. No matter how “just” our theoretical cause for war may be, we would do well to remember the moral price of murder. Finally, we should each consider our own responsibility for those murders as citizens of a republic.
I wish the best for the brave Libyans fighting for their own freedom, and I abhor the violence the Libyan state is directing against them. But I dearly hope that not another dime of my tax dollars will be spent murdering any Libyans—as in John Quincy Adams’ vision for America, my heart, benedictions, and prayers are with the Libyan people, but that is all. Please join me in demanding that our government stop murdering in our name.