Everyone has now likely heard about the U.S. missile attack in Pakistan that targeted but missed al-Zawahri, Al Qaida’s #2 official. 18 civilians were killed, and it’s now thought that up to four Al Qaida operatives may also have been killed, although this is still muddy. The attacks prompted thousands to protest in Pakistan. The Pakistani government has also protested the strike, which was apparently unauthorized.
Kevin Drum asks on his blog:
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let’s also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let’s assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.
Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I’d sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I’m curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified?
Much furious debate ensues. Michael Stickings encourages us to think about the issue. Shakespeare’s Sister, too.
But, much of the discussion around the missile strike, and whether it was “justified”, misses an important point: reasonable people may disagree about which circumstances legitimately compel the use of force, and which do not. The pursuit of terrorists and militants undoubtably requires strong measures. So who’s views should prevail? When shall we judge the use of force to be legitimate, even in the face of differences of opinion on the issue?
Well, see, that’s what laws are for.
The whole idea of the rule of law is that everyone agrees to submit themselves to codified rules about acceptable conduct, even if they don’t agree with all provisions of the law, or would like the laws to be different, because the alternative is might-makes-right and every-man-for-himself. The danger is always that the most powerful people exempt themselves from the law and act unjustly towards everyone else. That’s why it’s important for everyone to genuinely respect the integrity and importance of the law, and for there to be real accountability for its violators.
The debate about the US’ violation of another country’s sovereignty in order to kill a bunch of its citizens seems to mostly revolve around whether or not this was a good decision, as though it’s perfectly natural and obvious that military commanders for the United States should get to sit in a small room, far from the mountains of Pakistan, and decide whether or not they feel like killing people in a foreign country today. Much of the discussion around whether or not they made a “good choice” seems to suggest that we follow our collective conscience in these matters, as though it would be perfectly natural that the US’ institutional conscience would be the only check on its behavior.
Blog comments and discussion boards are full of opinions like “I think the attacks were fine because they killed only 18 innocents, not hundreds, and al-Zawahri is a very bad man”, or “Killing innocent people is never OK”, or “As long as the military tried really hard not to kill any innocents, then the civilian deaths are regrettable but acceptable”. I submit to you that opinions like these are expressions of preference about what the rules ought to be. This sort of debate is healthy and desirable, but only in the context of trying to establish rules we will all live by. If we have no intention of actually establishing and / or respecting a set of rules, it’s utterly pointless to discuss these matters; the reality is that whoever has their finger on the trigger will make up their own mind.
What should therefore be discussed more prominently, I think, is the idea that governments and individuals will always disagree about when it’s OK for one country to invade / attack / decapitate / sanction / blockade another, when it’s OK to kill people with missiles launched from an unmanned drone, assassinate a governmental figure, or what have you. In the face of this, you can resign yourself to the idea that whoever has more firepower will do whatever they want, or you can advocate for the principle of the rule of law to be respected on the international scene.
To its credit, Slate’s “Explainer” article on the bombings doesn’t ask “what are various ways in which people with different political perspectives may argue that the bombings can be justified, in the abstract?”, but rather, “Were the Missile Strikes in Pakistan Illegal?”. It then explains the current state of international law on war. In case you’re curious, the standard is that “civilian deaths are acceptable as long as they are proportional to the overall military objective”.
Do you think this standard is too fuzzy? Perhaps you think it’s the wrong standard alltogether? Maybe it’s missing some important pieces? Perhaps you think that it’s of no consequence because there is no good accountability and enforcement mechanism for international law? I submit to you that what you want is better, or different, international law, and for powerful countries like the US to start actually respecting the strictures of international law, and for institutions like the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council to be given more relevance, respect, integrity, and teeth.