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On the Virtues of Killing Children

Posted By Grim • [August 10, 2006]

Note from 2011: This has proven to be a post of lasting interest, but the best part of it is the comment thread. The post inspired a link back from Salon magazine, and a heated debate ensued between the readership of that magazine and ourselves. I think the debate, though it begins harshly, is one of the most productive and interesting ones I've witnessed on the internet. It allowed us to identify an important assumption well known to a military-centered readership, the Doctrine of Double Effect, which underlies Just War theory and military law, but which is not well known outside of the community. Read the post as an incitement to that debate, and then the debate for a demonstration of how Americans can overcome initial anger and share ideas across the ideological border.

Unfortunately, it must also be read as an endorsement of the core idea of the Doctrine of Double Effect. But read on.

You are not going to like this. 

On the demonstrable virtues of not caring if children die, on hardening your mind for war, and other things we can no longer avoid discussing.

Beware that you are ready before you pass this seal.

Let us begin with a debate between a peaceful, gentle soul, and me.  The topic could be Israel's war, or ours in Iraq, or -- if they have the heart for it -- the one to come.

The gentle soul -- how I respect her!  -- will begin by pointing out how many innocents have died in the recent wars, and especially the children, who are the most obviously innocent.  She will point out figures for Iraq, for Afghanistan, for Lebanon, and ask:  "How can you justify this?  These poor children, who might have been good men, good women, lain in the cold earth?"

We have all had the conversation that far, have we not?  We are accustomed to reply:  "But the enemy is the one that targets children.  We try our best to avoid hurting children.  That makes us better.  Furthermore, the enemy hides himself among children.  As a result, in spite of our best efforts, sometimes children die on the other side also.  But again, it is not our fault -- it is his fault.  He endangers them."

She replies:  "But how can you justify their deaths?  Regardless of how hard you try, will you not kill them?  Some of them?  Should we not choose peace instead?"

Let us consider that.

What if we asked her, "Let us speculate that our enemy -- say in Iran -- seeks to kill our children.  If we attack them to stop it, we may or may not kill any of their children -- and we will do everything in our power to avoid it.  If we do not, they certainly will kill ours.  Should we attack them or not?"

She will answer:  "That is a false example.  Nothing is certain, and it is said that hard cases make bad law."

"Fair enough," we reply, "but where will you find the parent who will sacrifice her children for the possibility of keeping another parent's child alive?"

"It would be impossible," she will agree, but add, "However, nothing is that certain."

"Then let us make it conditional," I continue.  "Let us say that there is the possibility we shall kill a child -- but we shall do our best not to do so -- and only the possibility that they will kill our child, but it is their aim.  Now, should we try to stop them -- though risking their child?  Or should we refuse, and take the increased risk that they will succeed in their murder, since no one dares disrupt them?"

"It is always wrong to take the risk of killing a child, whether we do it or they do," she will say.

"Why so?" I ask.

"Because it endangers the innocent," she replies.

"If that is the reason," I answer, "then you are wrong.  It is best that we bomb without fear."

Her eyes grow wide.  "You are mad," she says.

"Not so," I answer.  "Consider:  when the enemy seeks to kill our child to motivate us to surrender to his will, is it not because he believes that the danger to the children will move our hearts?"

"It is," she must agree.

"And when he hides among children," I add, "why?  Children do little to deflect artillery.  Must it not be because he knows that we -- we ourselves -- fear for the children, even his children?"

She nods, silently.

"Then it is proven," I say.  "It is our love of these innocents that endangers them.  If we did not care if children died, they would be in little danger."

"That cannot be," she replies in anger.

"But it is so," I contest.  "If we did not care if our children died, they would not be targets.  There would be no reason to target them, because we would not be moved by their deaths.

"If we did not care if their children died," I add, "there would be no reason to clutter military emplacements with their presence.  If it were not that we are horrified by the deaths of children, the enemy's children would be clear of all places of battle -- because they are, except for the fact that we love them, a hindrance."

She bites her lip.

"Of course, we cannot cut out our hearts," I tell her.  "Nor should we -- as we wish to remain men, and good men, rather than monsters.  Yet it is our love that is the chief danger to the innocent now -- to our own innocents, and theirs also."

"What do you suggest?" she demands of me.  "If you will not hate children, if you assert that it is right to love them -- but you say we cannot love them, without wrongfully endangering them -- what can we do?  Where is the right?"

"It must be," I tell her sadly, "Here:  That we pursue war without thought of the children.  That we do not turn aside from the death of the innocent, but push on to the conclusion, through all fearful fire.  If we do that, the children will lose their value as hostages, and as targets:  if we love them, we must harden our hearts against their loss.  Ours and theirs."

"How can that be right?" she wonders.

"It cannot be," I must say.  "Love should always rise, above war and fear and death.  Love should always be first, and not last, in our hearts.  It should never be that love brings wrong, and disdain brings right.

"And yet," I say, "It is.  I have shown you that it is.  That means we have moved into a time beyond human wisdom.  We can no longer know the right.  It is beyond us. 

"We can only do," I must warn her, and you.  "We can only do, and pray, that when we are done we may be forgiven."


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