Sunday, 7 December 2003
"9 Afghan children die in U.S. strike" read the headline in my Sunday newspaper. It seems that American forces were trying to kill a known terrorist who was believed to be hiding in a rural area about 100 miles from the capital, Kabul. The "good news" is that they got the terrorist. The bad news is that when the military investigated the scene, they also found the body of nine children. Naturally the military issued a statement saying, "We regret the loss of any innocent life." The military also said that "we follow stringent rules of engagement to specifically avoid this type of incident while continuing to target terrorists who threaten the future of Afghanistan."
Elsewhere in the news article, the intended target of the U.S. attack is identified as "a suspected militant believed responsible for the killing of two foreign contractors who were working on an Afghan road." Whether a person fighting to expel foreigners from his homeland is properly labeled a "terrorist" is a question for another time. The question I want to address here is this: are rules of engagement that allow the dropping of bombs or the firing of missiles from airplanes appropriate rules of engagement? And more specifically, what is a proper Christian perspective on bombing as a means of assassination?
The first part of the question involves the proper rules of engagement that the military is supposed to follow when fighting in Afghanistan. Those last two words are important--"in Afghanistan." You see, there is no way that the U.S. would use rules of engagement that included dropping bombs on people within the borders of the United States. Why not? Because when you drop a bomb or shoot a missile in order to kill one person, there is a great likelihood that you'll kill others as well. On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a house in a residential neighborhood, targeting a radical group called Move. The bomb killed six people, including two children, and it started a fire that destroyed more than fifty homes. A special commission appointed by Mayor Wilson Goode concluded that "dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." In 1996 a court ordered the city to pay $1.5 million to the survivors and families of the victims.
Since the Philadelphia incident, no police department in the U.S. has dared to drop a bomb on a suspected criminal organization's headquarters. The former mayor of Philadelphia knows why: it is unconscionable. But if it is unconscionable to drop bombs in civilian areas in America, why is it not also unconscionable to drop bombs in civilian areas in Afghanistan? The answer is that it is unconscionable to drop bombs in civilian areas in other countries, just as it is in the U.S. Then why do the U.S. military's rules of engagement allow it? Because the U.S. government does not consider the lives of foreign civilians as important as those of U.S. civilians. It's as simple as that. Similarly, we don't consider foreign criminal suspects to have the same rights as American criminal suspects. In America, summary execution of suspected criminals is itself criminal behavior. In Afghanistan, apparently--and in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere--summary execution of criminal suspects by U.S. forces is considered acceptable behavior.
The U.S. government, in the incident under discussion, violated at least two distinct Christian principles when it bombed a terror suspect in Afghanistan. First, by engaging in summary execution rather than seeking to arrest and detain the suspect by non-lethal means, the government, through the military, engaged in murder. There was no element of self-defense, nor was anyone's life immediately threatened by the suspected terrorist at the time of the assassination. Nothing apparently prevented the military from storming the house and arresting the suspect. If, during such an attempt, the suspect had begun to shoot at the American troops, then they could well have been justified in using deadly force. However, the judgment was made to use deadly force rather than even attempt to apprehend the suspect, with tragic consequences. Killing a suspect without making an attempt to apprehend him nonviolently is murder.
Killing innocent bystanders while engaging in criminal activity is also murder. In the U.S., if a crime results in the death of bystanders, even if the perpetrator did not intend to kill the bystanders, the perpetrator can be charged with felony murder, that is, murder committed during the execution of a felony. Since the summary execution of the suspected militant was undertaken with clearly excessive force, resulting in the deaths of many innocent children, the U.S. government is guilty of their murders as well.
In addition to murder, the government, because of its unjust rules of engagement, is also guilty of the sin of partiality. Since the government would not bomb American neighborhoods just to get one criminal, yet the military has done so repeatedly outside U.S. borders, it is clear that the government favors U.S. citizens over non-citizens. While it is not surprising that this is the case--and indeed, most other countries probably also favor their own citizens in various ways--to do so is a sin. When the favoritism extends so far as to treat the lives of non-citizens as so unimportant that weapons of mass destruction (e.g., bombs and missiles) can be used in civilian areas without compunction, it is an egregious sin.
It is not my point here to argue with the military logic behind dropping bombs in civilian neighborhoods. There may well be those who think that doing so is an important tool in the war on terror--I personally think it just creates more terrorists. Nevertheless, that such policies are a clear violation of Christian principles--that is, they are sins--is evident. Christians who put their allegiance to Christ ahead of their allegiance to the government--any government--must stand up and denounce these sins.
© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology