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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

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War has many bad consequences. One of the worst is the stigmatizing of dissent. Yet sometimes dissent is the only thing that stands between us and catastrophe.

According to the U.S. government, the mission of the current war was to root out the terror network of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and their Taliban support in Afghanistan. So what did the government do? It conducted massive bombing of population centers, resulting in a catastrophic refugee problem among the more than seven million people, according to relief organizations, who were already at risk of starvation. In fact, one of the first things the U.S. government did was prevail on Pakistan to stop trucking food into Afghanistan. The token food drops don’t nearly make up for what U.S. policy has wreaked.

Does that make sense? To stop terrorism, American officials have terrorized millions of innocent people and their children with cluster bombs and starvation. Even with the war winding down, American forces are still killing innocents; that this has resulted from bad intelligence or stupid “smart” bombs is morally immaterial. There were apparently no Afghans among the terrorists on September 11. But after this military action, would anyone be surprised to find Afghans among the perpetrators of a future terrorist strike against the United States?

It will be said that what the U.S. government is doing cannot be compared with what happened on September 11, when American civilians were deliberately targeted. But even if the U.S. government is not intentionally bombing civilians, the policymakers are doing things they know will certainly result in large numbers of civilian deaths. One cannot launch total war and then claim one had no intention of killing innocent civilians.

Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of interest in such “collateral damage.” The U.S. government waves the reports away as propaganda–until the evidence is so strong that the military is forced to “investigate.” The American news media generally have their hands too full of pom-poms and megaphones to report on the substantial innocent casualties. Besides, such reporting would be bad for home-front morale. One can only hope that someday soon the media moguls will look back on their war coverage with great shame.

But, defenders of U.S. policy will say, there are terrorists dispersed among that population and we must do something. But hold on. That does not justify how the war is being prosecuted. There is a long-standing distinction between self-defense and retaliation. If a gunman hides behind an innocent hostage while trying to shoot you and your only chance at survival is to shoot the gunman knowing you probably will also hit the hostage, that is one thing. But what if the bad guy is driving away with a hostage in his car? Are you justified in firing a missile at the car, knowing that you are bound to kill the hostage too? No. You are not. In the first case, your life is on the line. In the second, the moment of self-defense has passed. You are not in immediate danger.

Our bombing in Afghanistan is not for the purpose of ending an imminent threat. It is retaliation. At best, it is intended to remove what could be a threat at some unspecified future time. Thus, acts that will almost certainly result in the deaths of innocents cannot be justified.

An operation consistent with morality would resemble the one by which the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. They didn’t bomb Buenos Aires. They used covert police-style tactics. Why was that alternative not tried? Better yet, why weren’t private organizations that specialize in such things offered a chance to capture bin Laden and disrupt his organization?

The attacks on September 11 rank among the most ghastly crimes of all time. But that doesn’t give the U.S. government license to take any actions it pleases in the name of justice. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.