People Killing Innocent People: A Distinction Without a Difference

In his brief statement of support at the G8 Summit following the murderous terrorist bombings in London, President Bush painted a sharp contrast between the civilized world and the terrorists. According to Bush, we in the civilized world are different from and better than the terrorists as they are adherents of the practice of “people killing innocent people.” Likewise, Bush noted that “the contrast couldn’t be clearer” between “those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill – those who have got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.”

Further emphasizing the moral superiority of the civilized western world, Bush promised that as we bring to justice the perpetrators of the heinous attacks in London, “we will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate.”

Listening to Bush’s remarks, one might feel heartened by the reminder that we care deeply about human rights and liberty and adhere to an ideology of hope and compassion. Then again, one might also pause to ask, for whom do we have compassion and concern for rights and liberties? One might also be inclined to ask, are we above taking the lives of innocent folks? Are our hands clean?

Such questions are difficult and uncomfortable. Indeed, these days, such questions, and those with the temerity to aks them, are dangerous, subversive, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, such difficult questions demand considered answers, lest we continue to devolve into those from whom we seek to differentiate ourselves.

Consider, for example, the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq in 2003. It would be unsurprising if many credited Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for coining that particular phrase specifically for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The phrase “shock and awe,” however, is actually part of the military doctrine of rapid dominance, developed by the National Defense University in 1996. The doctrine takes its cue from the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as from Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, both of which involved heavy civilian casualties. Shock and awe seeks create the non-nuclear equivalent of the U.S. nuclear strikes on Japan. To achieve this equivalency, shock and awe envisions targeting the means of communication, modes of transportation, food production, water supply, and other aspects of civilian infrastructure.

With specific reference to Iraq, the National Defense University assumed an objective of “shut[ting] Iraq down.” As the authors recognized, “[s]hutting the country down would entail both the physical destruction of appropriate infrastructure and the shutdown and control of the flow of all vital information and associated commerce so rapidly as to achieve a level of national shock akin to the effect that dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese.”

This is precisely what the U.S. intended and accomplished in Iraq. In addition to bombing military targets, the U.S. “shock and awe” campaign targeted Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, as well. We deliberately targeted electrical power distribution facilities, impairing Iraqi hospitals’ ability to properly treat casualties. By targeting Iraq’s electrical power infrastructure, we also eliminated Iraq’s ability to produce clean water for civilian consumption. We also targeted civilian telecommunications and television stations.

But more than merely targeting Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, we targeted Iraq’s civilians. By some estimates, for the period of March 19 to May 1, 2003, approximately one-third of all Iraqi fatalities were civilian noncombatants. In Baghdad alone, nearly 2,000 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 were injured in the opening days of the Iraq invasion. Many of these casualties were the result of the U.S. military’s use of cluster munitions. Many more casualties resulted from the U.S. military’s bombing of residential districts, marketplaces, and shopping malls. Even hospitals already filled with dead and wounded from earlier sorties were bombed.

Are these not examples of “people killing innocent people”? Are these not examples of “tak[ing] the lives of innocent folks?” Are these not examples of attacking civilian targets in order to achieve political and military goals, what we call terrorism?

Apologists for U.S. aggression argue that we are not like terrorists because we did not intend to inflict terror through attacks on civilian targets. No? Consider again the stated goal of a “shock and awe” campaign: shutting down a country by attacking its infrastructure to create the non-nuclear equivalent of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Isn’t that just another, more sanitized way of saying terrorize?

Furthermore, is our subjective intent really all that relevant when compared with the objective results of our actions? While the means employed by terrorists may be different than those we employ, the ends are identical: dead and wounded civilians, confused and frightened, wondering what they had done to deserve such wanton devastation.

That we terrorize civilian populations with laser-guided smart bombs from on high, while terrorists do so with explosives strapped to their chests, is a distinction without a difference. In the end, the death and destruction we unleash upon innocent civilians is indiscriminate and inexcusable. In the end, neither we nor they show hope or compassion for the “innocent folks” to whom we lay waste.

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