Here, I think, is an excellent way of demonstrating the moral difference between the two sides of the current Israel/Lebanon conflict. Every civilian death is a tragedy. But in terms of assigning moral culpability to the perpetrators, I ask you to evaluate the following two scenarios:
A commando squad kills two police officers, then breaks into an apartment complex. Finding a father and his 4-year old daughter, they take both out to a courtyard, kill the father before the girl's eyes, then dash her brains out with a rifle butt.
A fighter plan drops a bomb on an apartment complex where terrorists have been firing off rockets into residential neighborhood. In addition to the terrorists, the complex is occupied by a dozen civilians who, for one reason or another, have not evacuated (in spite of warnings).
The first scenario is rather straight forward. The second, however, is fuzzier. The moral calculus shifts depending on, say, whether or not the civilians in the building are serving as voluntary shields, or are being held as virtual hostages to become human shields. The importance of the military target is relevant as well. It also varies depending on whether the Air Force knew the civilians were there, knew how many they were, etc..
Depending on how one constructs the second scenario, one can imagine several different levels of moral culpability. If the air force didn't know there were civilians being held against their will as shields, then there might be little to no moral culpability, we would call it a tragic accident (indeed, we would likely blame the terrorists as the culpable parties in this case). By contrast, if the air force knew the civilians were there, and that they were unable to leave for other reasons (they couldn't afford it, or were too sick, for example), then the perception changes. Now the morality likely hinges on whether the civilian deaths were justifiable in proportion to the expected military benefit. So, in the worse case, if the air force bombed some insignificant piece of terror infrastructure, knowing the civilians were there involuntarily and were likely face heavy casualties, then we'd justly say that such an action is immoral.
However, horrible as that is, I do not think this reading of scenario II has the air force coming out worse, morally speaking, than the terrorists in scenario I who engaged in a pre-meditated, deliberate, cold-blooded killing of four innocent civilians in a particularly brutal fashion.
Much of the civilian casualties caused by Israel's assault are permutations of Scenario II. It is unknown how many sorties fall into each particular category--exactly how much Israel knows about the remaining civilian population and exactly how important each target is information I don't have. I do not know of any case in which the Israeli air force has been simply indifferent to civilian casualties--hitting an insignificant piece of infrastructure without regard to what's around it--but perhaps it has happened. If so, and in that circumstance, it should be condemned. But not condemned as the moral equal of Scenario I. But by and large, Israel has been remarkably forthcoming in telling us "here's what we're hitting, here's why we're hitting it."
The event in Scenario I, by contrast, was an accurate description of an operation launched by a Lebanese terrorist in Northern Israel. The leader of the operation was captured by Israeli forces and is currently in jail for quadruple homicide. He remains unrepentant. This man, Mr. Samir Kuntar is the top-priority prisoner that Hezbollah wants released--their stated reason for beginning this war.
There is a difference between accidentally killing civilians in the pursuit of a legitimate military objective, negligently killing civilians in the pursuit of a military objective, and deliberately setting out to kill civilians. In ethics, intent matters. And we have to remember the intentions of the participants in this conflict as a crucial aspect of who deserves our support.
I wrote up this test due to some remarks by my editor at the Carleton Progressive. He reprinted an article from Electronic Intifada that, among other things, asserted that the Hezbollah operation would be justified if it secured the release of Mr. Kuntar (that seeking to release this brutal terrorist would make the attack more just, not less). I said that as a liberal publication, we needed to disavow the notion that killing four year old girls is somehow noble. He responded that he'd be happy to write an editorial condemning the killing of children, but that currently it's Israel that's doing most of the child killing. I immediately averred--deliberately killing children. "Bombing an apartment complex is deliberate," he responded.
My editor is a very smart guy. I am fully confident he can understand the distinction I just outlined. Having the faith the defend that line, the fortitude to not lose perspective and equate unequal horrors, is a battle for the very soul of liberalism. And it's a fight we need to win.