KRAKOW, Poland – World leaders gathered in Poland, EU lawmakers observed a minute of silence in Brussels and a Holocaust survivor warned German leaders to be vigilant against anti-Semitism in ceremonies Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
In Poland, where leaders from 30 countries gathered to remember the victims of the Holocaust, Vice President Dick Cheney (news – web sites) noted that it did not happen in some far-off place but “in the heart of the civilized world.”
“The story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted,” he said.
Cheney’s statement encapsulates the very essence of what I’ve been saying over and over on this website.
At a recent dinner party, the conversation turned to Israel. My host enjoined me to define terrorism, and I told him that I defined it as “The deliberate murder of non-combatants, non-military personnel for political ends.” He countered with a hypothetical example of an Israeli cruise missile killing not only a terrorist leader, but also the people around him. The point, I tried to explain, was intent. While I don’t think that “caring” about anything is at all meaningful, I think intent, as a concept, is vital. A man who walks into a crowded bus with rat poison-laced ball bearings taped to a bomb strapped around his chest and self-detonates absolutely, unquestioningly, deliberately, intends to kill as many civilians as he can. That’s inarguable.
It was then explained to me that intent, apparently, has degrees. That is, there are different levels of intent. So if a terrorist leader surrounds himself with non-combatants as a constantly-changing human shield is killed along with some of those non-combatants in an Israeli military strike intended to keep him from sending out more bus-bombers, a moral equivalency can be drawn: non-combatants were killed, right? The Israelis’ form of intent lacked the moral authority that would separate them from the terrorists, because some non-combatants were accidentally killed. Certainly, before understaking such an action the odds were deemed high that yes, indeed, some of the terrorist’s human shields would be slain.
But is that a strong enough reason to keep from acting in self-defense? At what point do the unintended consequences of an action outweigh the importance of performing that action? In many respects, it’s an obvious question: we don’t send in helicopter gunships to destroy city blocks when a drug shootout occurs in Compton. However, the line is drawn: action versus inaction. Taken to its other extreme, don’t you dare get into your car to drive to work: not only will you be producing greenhouse gases that might destroy the ozone layer, but you also run the risk of getting into an accident that might kill a child standing at a bus stop. What’s more important: your job, or that child’s life?
What it boils down to is risk, which is very strongly connected to the term “unintended consequences.” Planning, resources, ability: all mitigate risk, and consequently limit unintended consequences. Risk assessment becomes easy when deciding if that three-week old package of turkey that’s been sitting in the fridge is worth eating or not, especially if you have the means to buy more turkey. Risk assessment is less easy when you decide whether or not to cruise missile a Hamas leader in the middle of a crowd of worshippers.
Which is where we end up now: to defeat terrorists, to confront evil, often calls for killing. Because we live in a world where almost anyone can “reach out and touch someone” anywhere else, the nature of self-defense has come back to the forefront. It took September 11 to teach us that, but it’s hopefully a lesson that won’t require reinforcement: the nature of effective self-defense requires a commitment to being proactive, not reactive. We call this a cliche’: “The best defense is a good offense.” But it is an absolute truism. With this in mind, intent, risk assessment, and unintended consequences become questions of survival instead of abstract concepts.
Militant Islamists don’t fear death, injury, or imprisonment. All they fear is failure. With deliberate intent, they use the murders of women and children to further their aims. When faced with an enemy that committed, that evil, don’t risk assessment and unintended consequences become less and less a set of factors in determining self-defense? The other cliche’ is: “When fighting monsters, it is vital that you yourself do not become a monster.” This, I think, is less a moral caution and more a plea for non-action in the face of evil. War means killing the enemy and destroying things. That is what militaries the world over are trained to do, first and foremost.
Which brings us full-circle: there is no moral equivalency between the deliberate murder of non-combatants and the accidental killing of non-combatants during a legitimate military action. I give the benefit of the doubt that the Israelis do assess risk, weigh unintended consequences, and do what they think is necessary for self-defense. Otherwise, every time the Palestinians gather in the street to celebrate the murder of civilians, they’d get cruise-missiled. Do you really think the Israelis are militarily incapable of inflicting destruction on a level that would horrify even the most jaded cynic? Instead, they make what surgical strikes they can, they obviously do their best to minimize civilian casualties, and they build a wall. Such restraint in the face of baby-killing is, in my opinion, worthy of sainthood. To use the factor of unintended consequences when innocent lives are at stake complicates decisions made to defend oneself, but it must not be used as an excuse for inaction in the face of evil. To quote Dick Cheney, “Evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted.” The time for moral relativism is over. When the Jews say, “Never again,” we mean it, and we will act to save ourselves despite every effort of the moral relativists on the left, the anti-semites on the right, and everyone else in-between.