In the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim terrorists killed more than 3,000 people, some 90 percent of them at the World Trade Center, the rest on the hijacked airliners and at the Pentagon. The taking of life shocked many people the world over, not the least of them the president of the United States. Regardless of ones ethical, religious or political beliefs, no one could condone the murder of thousands of innocent people.
In the war on terrorism that ensued, President Bush sought, or so he claimed, to bring to justice the responsible parties. The first difficulty, of course, was that the 19 people most directly responsible for the crimes were already dead. Bush looked past them, however, in his quest to root out all those who might have harbored or otherwise aided the perpetrators. This project made some moral sense: We all understand the concept of accomplice to murder.
At this juncture, however, the presidents moral vision must have grown murky. The hijackers' main abettors were identified as members of a shadowy radical Islamic organization known as al Qaeda, whose principal training sites lay in Afghanistan. When the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan refused to hand over al Qaedas leader, Osama bin Laden, in accordance with a U.S. ultimatum, the president loosed a military assault on Afghanistan, the major component of which consisted of heavy aerial bombardments in support of local anti-Taliban groups momentarily allied with the United States.
Although the Taliban was chased from power and dispersed into hiding places in the mountains and elsewhere, the U.S. bombardment took a substantial toll of innocent civilians. Estimates vary widely, and by the very nature of the situation they cannot be made very reliable or precise. Nonetheless, reports by a number of U.S. and foreign journalists and other observers on the ground indicate that during the first two months of the campaigna campaign that continues todayat least 1,000 and perhaps as many as 4,000 civilians were killed. Since then the toll has mounted, as U.S. forces have continued to expend bombs, rockets and other munitions on an assortment of targets ranging from mountain caves to inhabited villages to isolated automobiles. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire calls his estimate of nearly 3, 800 Afghan civilians killed between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, 2001, very, very conservative, although others regard his estimate as too large.
Thus, the president, setting out to bring to justice those who had aided or harbored the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, has succeeded in adding the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghans to the toll of those killed by the hijackers in 2001. U.S. officials have consistently shrugged off these deaths; when they admit causing them at all, they designate them unintended collateral damage and therefore of no great significance. A morally clear- eyed view must regard them as gross injustices that only augment the initial crimes the president ostensibly sought to avenge.
The killings of innocent Afghans, however, now pale in comparison with the number of innocent people killed in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, a country whose leaders were never shown to have had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. On June 11, the Associated Press announced the results of its own survey, which is based on the records of 60 of Iraqs 124 hospitals as well as interviews with hospital officials. It covers the period from March 20 to April 20, the time of the heaviest fighting.
Besides not surveying all of the countrys hospitals, the AP found that death records were far from complete, in part because many of those killed were never taken to hospitals and were buried quickly by their families, and in part because some victims were buried under debris or obliterated by explosions. Still, the surveyors confirmed the deaths of at least 3,240 civilians. Other investigators have arrived at much greater figures. Douglas W. Cassel Jr., in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin of May 29, reports that human rights and humanitarian groups suggest a civilian death toll of somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. Again, the range is plausible; no one will ever know the exact number.
If we take as reasonable lower-bound estimates 2,000 Afghan and 4,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, then we can conclude that the U.S. forces already have inflicted at least two undeserved deaths for every death the terrorists caused in the Sept. 11 attacks. Many of the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq are women and children. Moreover, many of the thousands of Iraqi army personnel killed in the invasion arguably ought to be regarded as essentially innocent, because as conscripts they were fighting only under duress (and only in defense of their homeland). Thus, in a grotesque mockery of justice, the Bush administration has taken several innocent lives for each innocent life lost at the hands of the terrorists.
One might sayas many dothat the two killing sprees are not comparable, because the terrorists set out to kill the innocent, whereas the U. S. forces killed the innocent by accident. I greatly doubt, however, that this argument can hold water. When U.S. forces employ aerial and artillery bombardmentwith huge high-explosive bombs, large rockets and shells, including cluster munitionsas their principal technique of waging war, especially in densely inhabited areas, they know with absolute certainty that many innocent people will be killed. To proceed with such bombardment, therefore, is to choose to inflict those deaths.
If you or I settled our scores in our neighborhoods in such a fashion, neither moral authorities nor the legal system would countenance our slaughter of innocent bystanders as excusable. Nobody can gain moral absolution merely by labeling his killing spree a war. Its not a morally valid way out for you and me, and its not a morally valid way out for George W. Bush, either.
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institutes quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.
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