I've always preferred reading Adam Serwer's thoughts about these kinds of things. Even though I don't always agree with him, he doesn't seem to approach it all with the surety felt by those who are obviously suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome (ODS). He recently took that step deeper into the ethics question and clearly demonstrates the problems we will inevitably find when the conversation turns to trying to link concepts like "morality" and "war."
There's a really important moral and legal distinction to be made between torture, which is always illegal and always wrong, and killing, which can occasionally be both justified and legal.I suppose that we have to acknowledge that a statement like this is true. And yet, it begins the tortured logic of war, doesn't it? We've now established that its OK to take someone's life. The question remains, "who's life is it OK to take?" Here's how Serwer answers that one.
The laws of war exist to contain violence to combatants, who have consented to fight one another with the knowledge that doing so could lead to their deaths.I would propose that that "law of war" was abandoned with the advent of arial bombing. At least the victims of places like Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Hanoi - not to mention Baghdad's "Shock and Awe" - would say so.
What Serwer is doing in this article though, is trying to make a moral case against what he calls "Obama's targeted killing," and so he pivots away from this particular argument of when its OK to kill and when its not, to a comparison with President Bush's detention policies.
Bush's critics understood that the concept of membership in a terrorist group is far more nebulous than being a soldier in a uniformed military. Establishing that the individuals we're treating as terrorists are actually terrorists is therefore a moral imperative.I would say that it is in that pivot that Serwer lost me. As in any other war, "killing is irreversible. Dead is dead." And the fact is that in war, as I have already pointed out, there is always "collateral damage." So I think his original comparison is the apt - but troubling one.
With targeted killing, the same issues are at play. Unlike detention, however, the results of targeted killing are irreversible. Dead is dead. And the collateral damage is considerably greater, because civilians can be killed along with the target.
I don't fault Serwer. He took a stab at some very difficult questions. I appreciate that and think we should all be struggling with them. But in my mind he failed.
That's why, ultimately, I've always argued that those who are troubled by these actions should do everything in their power to bring an end to this endless war.
I'd also suggest that as human beings, these gray lines of war will continue to haunt us. The only thing I can suggest in the meantime is that we elect a Commander-In-Chief who shares that struggle with us.
So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."