Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bombing Pakistan: Was the attack justified?

Remember that CIA bombing of a remote Pakistani village last week? The one that killed 18 Pakistanis, but not Ayman al-Zawahiri? Well, it looks like at least one really bad guy was among the dead:

ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe that al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert was one of the men killed in last week's U.S. missile attack in eastern Pakistan.

Midhat Mursi, 52, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was identified by Pakistani authorities as one of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola early last Friday morning.

The United States had posted a $5 million reward for Mursi's capture. He is described by authorities as the man who ran al Qaeda's infamous Derunta training camp in Afghanistan, where he used dogs and other animals as subjects for experiments with poison and chemicals. His explosives training manual is still regarded as the bible for al Qaeda terrorists around the world.

Before I learned of this news I was critical of the bombing. Well, not so much critical of as saddened by. Al-Zawahiri is a huge target, and I wholeheartedly support efforts to capture or kill him, but he wasn't there and 18 Pakistanis were killed. 18 innocent Pakistanis, I thought. At least most of them.

Look at it this way: We are saddened by the deaths of 12 coal miners in West Virginia, and rightly so. In most cases, we are saddened by the loss of a single human life, so highly do we as a society value human life. Yet our sadness seems to be proportional to our proximity to the death. The deaths in Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Katrina were nearer to us, and hence sadder, than the deaths of many more thousands in Asia following the tsunami at the end of 2004. And the death of, say, a friend or a close family member is much more immediate to us than, say, the deaths of 18 faceless, nameless Pakistanis in some village on the other side of the planet.

We may value human life, and we may consider ourselves to be humanitarians, but the love of one's own is much stronger than the love of humanity generally. Which is why the death of someone close to us is sadder than the death of someone far from us. Sadder in relative terms, sadder in terms of our particular perspective. Each human life may be equally valuable, but we do place more value on those lives that our closer to us, that are our own. That is, my life, my family, my friends, my neighbours, even my countrymen.

This seems to be a truth about the human condition, rooted deeply in human nature. If you doubt it, think of a child's connection to its mother, or a mother's to her child, or a brother's to his sister, and so on. This is why, to an American, an American life is more valuable, and the loss of it sadder, than a Pakistani life. And this is why the deaths of 18 Pakistanis in some remote village seem almost unreal. They happened on TV, if at all, and we don't witness the suffering of their loved ones, the mourning at their graves.

Which leads me to an interesting post by Kevin Drum:

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?

An important question, to be sure. And what is the answer? I encourage you to come up with your own. For whatever the realities of the war on terror and the inevitable loss of civilian life, this is a profoundly personal issue that comes down to this: What means are justified by the end (the end of the war on terror, the end according to your own personal perspective of the war on terror)? How many deaths are worth it?

If you don't support the war on terror, or if you think that the U.S. is some unjust imperial power, then obviously the answer must be that no deaths are worth it, that all such killing is a crime, that the attack was not justified.

But most of us support the war on terror, at least in part. Most of us understand that terrorism, the terrorism of al Qaeda and its ilk, is a serious threat to our security, that is, to ourselves and our loved ones, our friends and our neighbours, our countries and our ways of life. But how far are we willing to go in waging that war? Are we willing to accept the torture of prisoners? Are we willing to invade sovereign countries? Are we willing to risk the lives of our men and women in the armed forces? Are we willing to bomb remote Pakistani villages?

I've repeatedly said no to torture. And on this: I suppose I must agree with Kevin. Yes, the attack was justified. But I come only sadly and reluctantly to that conclusion. If -- and the ifs here are very important -- if "major al Qaeda leaders" were killed, and if the military did everything it could to minimize civilian casualties, then, yes, the attack was justified.

But allow me to posit that as my preliminary answer to the question. Blogging may seem a bit like pontificating, but I need to think about this a good deal more before I come to any definite conclusion (which there may not be). And I would certainly like to hear what all of you have to say.

Was the attack justified? If not, what is your threshold for justification?

These are profoundly important questions. And we must try to answer them.

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