The Dangerous Logic Used to Justify Killing Civilians

A supporter of Israel's campaign in Gaza evades a longstanding taboo, using logic uncomfortably close to what's employed by Palestinian and Al Qaeda terrorists.
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After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden argued that Al Qaeda was perfectly justified in killing all those people inside the World Trade Center because they weren't really civilians–they were complicit in U.S. might and misdeeds. Didn't their taxes fund America's CIA assassinations and war planes? As every American understood perfectly well at the time, the attack that day would not have been justified even if all office workers in the Twin Towers had voted for a president and supported a military that perpetrated grave sins in the Middle East. Or even, indeed, if they were all subletting spare bedrooms to U.S. soldiers.

Killing civilians is wrong, no matter how often those who do it insist that the humans they killed weren't really innocent. Everyone understands this truth when the civilians being killed are one's countrymen or allies–but forget it quickly when the civilians are citizens of a country one is fighting or rooting against in war, even though the civilizational taboo against killing civilians becomes no less important.

The latest to succumb to this seductive illogic, to insist that slain civilians weren't really civilians, is New York University's Thane Rosenbaum, who writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Gazans sheltered terrorists and their weapons in their homes, right beside ottoman sofas and dirty diapers. When Israel warned them of impending attacks, the inhabitants defiantly refused to leave. On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

For purposes of this article, let's set aside all the adults killed in Gaza, just for the sake of argument. The dead Palestinian children are evidence enough that "real civilians" are being slaughtered. In the above passage, the author focuses on the dirty diapers rather than the baby that produced them. Elsewhere, he acknowledges the revolting number of kids killed in this conflict, and then adds, as if it's concession enough, "Surely there are civilians who have been killed in this conflict who have taken every step to distance themselves from this fast-moving war zone, and children whose parents are not card-carrying Hamas loyalists. These are the true innocents of Gaza." In fact, even a toddler whose father is a card-carrying Hamas loyalist is an innocent, by virtue of being a young child!

It is a moral failure not to acknowledge at least that. And the failure is worth dwelling on because wide embrace of Rosenbaum's logic would be a setback for a world where civilians have legal protection in war, however often it is violated. As Daniel Larison explains:

Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets. It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Just so.

No matter one's position on Israel, Palestine, or the current conflict, the fact that innocent civilians exist on both sides, that they ought to be protected from death and dismemberment, and that they're presently dying in large numbers ought not be denied.

Lest there be any confusion about what sorts of attacks I am condemning, consider any bygone instance of a Palestinian suicide bomber blowing up a restaurant or discotheque–or the lobbing rockets into residential neighborhoods inside Israel–as well as Israeli attacks like one that the New York Times just reported on:

When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of four family households—including 19 children—gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together. Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target. The attack was the latest in a series of Israeli strikes that have killed families in their homes, during an offensive that Israel says is meant to stop militant rocket fire that targets its civilians and destroy Hamas’s tunnel network. The Palestinian deaths—75 percent of them civilians, according to a United Nations count—have prompted a wave of international outrage, and are raising questions about Israel’s stated dedication to protecting civilians.

Killing 19 children in order to get one Hamas fighter is horrific.

Says Larison, alluding to such attacks:

It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

Israel's experience as a terrorist target suggests that watching foreigners kill children in one's midst does not break a people's desire to fight—it strengthens it. The spike in civilian deaths we're witnessing appears to be a moral and strategic failure.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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