Friday, August 11, 2006

Morality Test

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:

Scenario I
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.

Scenario II
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.


Anonymous said...

David -

Cases where the Israeli military has been coldly indifferent to civilians and neutral observers have been well documented. See the report from Human Rights Watch.

But also, you should remember that under international law Israel has the obligation to discriminate between civilian and military targets. Saying "they didn't know" isn't actually a defense, they have the burden of acquiring that knowledge if it is at all possible and would not require a similarly costly setback to the military operation.

Although I think the thrust of this post is correct. Sure, in terms of body count Israel's policy has been "worse", and that's certainly something to consider. But Hezbollah's attacks have been totally indiscriminat, lobbing rockets at random into populous areas, often loaded with metal ball-bearings that scatter on impact. Further, it is incredibly rare that Hezbollah even attempts to target military sites in Israel, its mainly just blatant bombardment of civilians. So in the sense of military technique, Hezbollah is certainly "worse".

One last thing, I don't see why people keep presenting the "civilians were warned" bit as though it actually mattered. It's kind of a minimal obligation that one has when attacking a civilian area, but it is by no means exhaustive of those obligations If your attacks ahve destroyed roads and bridges, made highways unsafe, made food, fule, and medicine rare... well, telling people to get out is kind of meaningless. That people actually have the means to evacuate is incredibly important. It is by no means acceptable to say, as Israel's government has, that all who remain are terrorists. By that logic, Hezbollah could declare it was going to attack an Israeli city, and be justified in knowing that everyone who didn't evacuate was a legitimate target. Which is, of course, absurd.

David Schraub said...

I think a major problem here is there is a myth of the Israeli army being the Voltron of warriors--an invulnerable uber-behomoth that can do anything it wants. Yes, Israel is spectacularly well-equipped, and yes, the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence services are top-notch, but civilians will still die, mistakes will still happen, and a fog of war still exists. "They didn't know" is a defense as long as it isn't a result of negligence. I read the HRW report, and it gives several examples of cases that I do think constitute serious war crimes violations. On the other hand, this statement at the top of HRW:
"The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah, and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack. Hezbollah occasionally did store weapons in or near civilian homes and fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas or near U.N. observers..."

is absurd. If HRW isn't finding cases of human shield use, then they aren't paying attention. See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.

Finally, I agree that warning civilians isn't exhaustive of one's moral obligation to them, but it is a good and important thing to do. It's certainly better than NOT warning them. The remaining people are by no means terrorists, but at the very least these warnings minimize civilian casualties and show that the goal isn't to indiscriminately kill civilians.

Anonymous said...

In moral terms, you wrongly elevate Israeli actions that “accidentally” kill civilians. When Israel bombs a target that it knows harbors terrorists and also ends up killing civilians, the civilian deaths are not “accidental” as you suggest. “Accidental” implies and necessitates surprise on the part of the person or party taking action. Civilian deaths are in this case collateral damage and are perfectly foreseeable from a military perspective. There exists no surprise on the part of Israel. Although it does not target civilians, Israel knows for certain that their bombing raids will cause civilian deaths.

You are correct to say that Hezbollah and Israel have different intents when they launch military attacks. This is what places the two parties on different moral footing. But to say that Israel has the moral high ground because they “accidentally” kill civilians while Hezbollah “deliberately” kills civilians is false. Both parties, by knowing full well that their actions will cause civilian deaths, are guilty of deliberately killing civilians.

David Schraub said...

Anon: I thought hard about your comment. I took a nice hot shower, thought about it there, and came up with the following answer, which I hope clarifies things.

The gist of our dispute is where "accidental" ends. You say it ends at the point of foreseeability, if a consequence can reasonably be foreseen (if I shouldn't reasonably be surprised when the result happens), then it is no longer accidental if that consequence occurs. I say that it ends at intentionality, if a consequence is the intent then that consequence is no longer accidental.

The first problem with your standard is that I think it severely perverts the common usage of "deliberate." I firmly believe that intentionality is a crucial component of "deliberately". This seems to flow directly out of the root--I deliberate and decide to do X. If one does not intend to do X, then it isn't deliberate even if X is foreseeable. I think this is how most people interpret the word "deliberate."

How can something be foreseeable and still accidental? Well, consider the act of playing baseball in the backyard. If I break a window while playing, that's an accident, even though it's a very foreseeable occurance if I hit a hard line drive in that direction. I think it would be uncharitable to say that the damage was not "accidental", and downright meanspirited to call the action "deliberate."

If I break a window playing baseball in the living room, the consequence is significantly more foreseeable, but I'd still say it was an "accident." I didn't mean to break the window, I had no intent to, it brings me no joy, and in fact I'd be far happier if the window was not broken. I would be significantly more culpable however, accidentalness notwithstanding. This is important: something can be an accident and still carry moral liability. Negligence is how we deal with bad things that were unintentional but foreseeable. The living room ballplayer is significantly more negligent than the backyard ballplayer, since the damage was more foreseeable (and unlike in backyards, there is no social norm sanctioning playing baseball in living rooms).

A negligence standard also can take into account the gravity of the surrounding circumstance better than an intentionality standard. If I run around playing the living room and break a lamp, that's very foreseeable and very negligent. If I break the lamp running across the room to assist a heart attack victim, that's equally foreseeable (running around a non-play room can often break things) but far less negligent. I again think both those situations are better off called accidents despite their foreseeability, and I think that the line between deliberate and accident is better expressed between those cases and a deliberate (intentional) breaking of household objects (e.g., a ransacking), than the very rare case where there damage occurs in a situation where it could not even be foreseen. It seems more intuitive, more charitable, and a better moral dividing line. And remmeber: we can still condemn negligence--but negligence is definitionally not deliberate.

The probligo said...

Can I put scenario 2 to you in a slightly different form.

"Terrorists" fire rockets from two sites, 500 yards apart. Israeli forces reply with artillery fire, using proximity fuses.

Out of 15 rounds fired, 8 land in a small area 300 yards from one target and 200 yards from the other.

That "small area" just happens to be a UN refugee camp.

The Israeli, "after the fact" report? The battery was using "an outdated map with incorrect coordinates.

Anonymous said...

Your attempt to mitigate 'accidental' fails. As has been pointed out, 'negligence' is also culpable and if you try and dismiss this as being 'not so bad' and therefore OK, I would suggest you risk descent to the morality of those you criticise.

There has appeared to be just such justification by the IDF, e.g. with Netanyaho trying to use Dresden's WW2 bombing as a precedent for civilian casualties on the BBC. Murder is not normally OK if within numerical limits set by Al Capone, etc.

In the context of Lebanon, it is too easy to assume rockets against Israel were all deliberately targeted at civilians when Israel too has mixed civilian-military settlements and infrastructure (the 'hiding behind'game).
Casualties suggest IDF were more targeted by Hizbollah than vica versa.

Anonymous said...

this is the 9.23 anon (not the earlier one!)

you write 'but negligence is definitionally not deliberate.'

This misses the point. Negligence is about lack of due care and if it can be shown you should have been more careful, i.e. that you were careless or even reckless, then if you are responsible for your actions, then they were deliberate actions. The negligence in your example is not in accidentally tripping over, but in acting in such a way that tripping up was a likely outcome.

So I can't agree with you. The consequences of negligence are not deliberate, but culpability remains for those consequences. This is why we use the term willfull negligence, i.e. deliberate, knowing negligence. Negligence itself is therefore deliberate, contrary to your statement.

The problem with the 'accidental' bombing of civilians is that negligence charges are too easy to dodge under warlike conditions. Do police normally blow up residential buildings where a criminal takes refuge? Of course not, it would be reckless and grossly negligent of public safety.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the line between 'deliberate' and 'accidental' targetting rather less clear cut?

a/ Targetting implies aiming and therefore deliberate intent. If that target is a building and it contains civilians, hitting that target can be said to deliberately harm them and it is then necessary to show that they cannot have been reasonably expected to be there - something difficult with a residential building, and that it was thus accidental. Is it really good enough to say I didn't know they were there? The onus is surely on the targetor to prevent civilian harm? At the very least a charge of recklessness or willful negligence needs answering.

b/ If the targetting is known to be inaccurate, it is more difficult to stick a charge as 'deliberate targetting'. It is certainly reckless but is it really any more so than the example above? Surely in this context it is difficult to say for sure Katusha rockets deliberately target civilians when they may be aimed at military targets (and evidently often were). The same randomness may be applicable to IDF tank and artillery rounds and other non-surgical munitions.

The real distinction arises normally in the due care the targetting requires, which is to make sure civilians are not part of any military target. Certainly in civil life, it would be incumbent on the police and demolition teams to guarentee no people inside a building to be blown up. While it is considerably more difficult in war to exercise the same caution, when caution appears to be scant and civilian targets chosen at will, it will certainly look 'deiberate' from the receiving end.

Neither side in Lebanon can really be said to have exercised sufficient caution, both have been reckless and claims of 'accidental' from both sides are equally vacuous.

From a strategic view, for IDF to have lowered its standards to those of so called 'terrorists' is surely regrettable. If the gloves do come off to this extent, any claims to "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" seems rather hollow.