Terrorism against innocent people is evil. That is a simple concept and there are not many people who would argue against it.
Those who engage in acts of terror and take the lives of innocent people should be punished. Again, would anyone argue against this?
This is the basis for the justification for fighting the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anywhere else the United States has been sending troops in the name of the War on Terror. The argument goes: “We were attacked on September 11th and many innocent Americans lost their lives, so we have to respond” or “There are terrorists who want to attack us and say they will attack us, so we have to respond.” For a long time, I was one of the people who used this reasoning to justify my support for the wars.
The unfortunate reality of war is that it goes hand in hand with massive collateral damage. War destroys wealth and economies, both for the country where the war is being fought and for the foreign invader, although the hope is usually that the rewards of the conquest (land, oil, narcotics, etc.) will counter the negative consequences of the damage.
More importantly, war also destroys lives. Innocent people die in wars—it was estimated that between 38 and 55 million civilians were killed during World War II. Yes, many of those deaths were perpetrated by the likes of unpopular governments like those of Nazi Germany, China (a United States ally during the war), and the Soviet Union (another ally of the United States during the war), but the present wars that the United States is engaged in have high death tolls as well. From a report from the Costs of War:
The ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have taken a tremendous toll on the people of those countries. At the very least, 174,000 civilians have been determined to have died violent deaths as a result of the war as of April 2014. The actual number of deaths, direct and indirect, as a result of the wars are many times higher than this figure.
Many of these innocent civilians have been killed by bombs and bullets of the United States. Is that justified? Is that ethically acceptable?
Let us frame this question in a way that assumes that the terrorist attack that needs a response was completely unprovoked. Let’s assume that a foreign policy that was easily predicted to fail and backfire had not been used by the United States government. Let’s assume that the United States had not already been killing civilians in these foreign countries prior to an attack.
Is the United States justified in killing innocent civilians in response to a terrorist attack as a way to bring the few who are responsible to justice? These people who are killed are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, siblings, friends, and coworkers. They didn’t ask for any of this violence in the first place but they have to suffer the loss of those close to them. It is terribly sad.
If you still think this response is justified, consider this: imagine that the police discover that an active murderer lives in your neighborhood. As a way to apprehend him, they shoot and kill much of the neighborhood. Is that something that is acceptable? Does the fact that a murderer needed to be stopped justify the extra killing?
What purpose does extra killing serve other than to raise hatred, distrust, and a desire to seek revenge?