Politics & Media
Oct 11, 2023, 06:24AM

Do Not Kill Innocents

Neither a terrorist nor a creator of terrorists be.

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I’d love to have some highly technical, perhaps ironic take on the current iteration of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but in the heat of the moment the timeless moral basics tend to be forgotten, and there’s always another heated moment and then another before relaxed, cooler heads get around to stating those basics. So I’ll stick to the basics.

First, no one should ever want an innocent person harmed. Strictly speaking, one shouldn’t even be eager to harm the guilty except insofar as attackers must be stopped and that may require harming them—perhaps even harming them later as punishment when things have cooled down, perhaps even inadvertently harming innocents in the process of stopping the attackers. But no good person sets out to harm the innocent.

The Hamas members threatening to behead almost-randomly-chosen captives, then, are indeed acting as evil terrorists, threatening innocents in order to get their political way. Even if Hamas diplomats retain a right to press their case for land or other concessions from Israel, no one willfully involved with hostage executions has the right to take on such a role or the moral competence to craft a better future.

Even if one takes the very Palestinian-friendly view that Gaza is, as some have put it, a giant “open-air prison” constructed by the Israelis (or at least a heavily-surveilled region hemmed in by security fences and the like), prisoners at most have the right to fight guards they can’t avoid, perhaps to punish wardens or specific architects of the system unjustly jailing them. But little more than that.

If you’ve been unjustly jailed in the U.S., for instance, you don’t gain the right to attack random elderly women on the sidewalk as misdirected revenge as you flee the prison (nor to burn down local businesses, to tie this to other conflicts the left tends to handle badly). That random victim may have been crusading for your freedom for all you know.

At this point in the argument, basic human instinct tends to weigh in with a very bad idea that should be dismissed immediately, which is the impulse, rooted more in tribalism than justice, to say, “There are no innocents!” That claim would be morally convenient for both the aspiring hostage-taker and the planner of an immense retaliatory aerial bombardment such as the Israelis may well have launched by the time you read this. If there were no innocents, your conscience would be clear. It’d be easier to wage wars without qualms. But you know that sweeping claim is false. (It’s false even if you took some tiny legalistic step like texting everyone within your planned bombing zone to tell them they’ll be assumed to be terrorists unless they immediately attempt to exit the region via roads that may well be blocked off.)

One of the best arguments for basing ethics in individualism—a principle that keeps being beaten down by leftists, establishment liberals (with all of their collectivist affirmative action, reparation, and social justice ideas), willfully blind “Bomb ’em all” conservatives, and tribalist far-right activists alike, as well as the nationalists of all nations—is that blaming large numbers of people for the acts of a few whom the larger group didn’t control leads to shoddy, lazy moral scorekeeping: sloppy generalizations like racism, class warfare, presuming the guilt of anyone who looks like you, pretending anyone on the other side of a given border is probably a monster. It’s a formula sooner or later for mass murder.

I recall right after 9/11 one of the law-and-order hardasses associated with the conservative Manhattan Institute—not a terrible person, and understandably distraught at the time—being downright offended by my comment, pretty reasonable and moderate in hindsight, that I hoped the U.S. wouldn’t militarily overreact to the 9/11 attacks and end up bombing the wrong country or killing so many innocents that it inflamed the passions of more potential terrorists. I’m not usually considered a peacenik hippie, but people get upset even if a then-somewhat-hawkish person tells them to check their bloodlust.

Again, I’m not a pacifist, and realize some tough decisions and ruthless-looking actions must sometimes happen. Your long-term goal should be peace, though, and in the meantime no moral person should be reveling in avoidable carnage, the smell of napalm in the morning, the glory of battle, the lamentations of the women, the thud of a decapitated head from the other tribe, or an indiscriminate missile strike (to list some things beloved by perverts from various factions).

If you like those things, you’re not really the one fighting for civilization and justice, no matter from which tribe you hail. You’re just a barbarian—and I don’t want you or anyone else to be killed because of it, especially not if they’re guilty of nothing more than living near you, sharing some of your DNA, being taxed to support your wars, or, for crying out loud, just attending a music festival you and some sadistic pals considered an easy target.

Every individual has rights, and the closer we get to addressing their grievances and punishing their transgressions on an individual basis, the closer we get to a rational, peaceful legal system and the farther we get from the tribalistic, collectivist hell of random violence. 

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on X at @ToddSeavey


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