I went to see the movie Eye in the Sky the day before the terrorist attacks in Brussels. I’m not giving away anything you won’t see in the trailer, but the film focuses on the moral dilemma of whether it’s acceptable to jeopardize the life of one civilian (via a drone strike) to save the lives of dozens of other innocents (via suicide bombers).
I’ve never had a problem with our drone attacks. And the savagery in Belgium only solidified my beliefs. I would risk the lives of a few to save the lives of many, especially if it would eliminate the long-term threat posed by terrorist leaders.
But what prompted me to write this piece is a fact that is frequently overlooked in this debate about collateral damage, whether in a film such as this or in the discussion of attacks like those in Belgium. And that is that there is a distinct difference between terrorists and nations like the United States. Terrorists deliberately target civilians whereas we do our best to avoid killing them.
Sure, there are some notable, and extremely significant exceptions to that rule. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden come to mind. Though one could argue that those atrocities were necessary to hasten the end of World War II, the costliest war in human history.
World War II killed as many as 85 million people, with approximately 50 million of those casualties being civilians. And any discussions of those three unprecedented aerial bombardments should take into consideration that the recipients, Japan and Germany, not only started the war but were also responsible for the vast majority of those civilian fatalities. Most are familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust conducted by Germany, but Japan brutally butchered almost as many innocents in its reign of terror.
The thinking – right or wrong – was that the fire-bombing of Dresden and the nuclear destruction of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki would help put an end to the war, thereby putting an end to the staggering loss of life – both for soldiers and civilians. Whether or not these tactics were successful, or even necessary, remains a matter of debate.
For the most part, though, the United States does its best to avoid civilian casualties. Our opponents in this new global war – Al Qaeda, ISIS, and their ilk – purposefully target civilians. They live to kill the innocent. It’s what they do. And it’s all they do. Whereas our soldiers will face an inquiry and the possibility of some very harsh penalties even for accidentally harming civilians, our enemy will celebrate such shameless acts and treat the perpetrators as heroes.
So, no, I don’t have a problem with drone strikes. Yes, they occasionally cost innocent lives, and that is absolutely regrettable. But we do our best to avoid that, even when our enemies surround themselves with civilians, operating out of schools and hospitals in densely packed residential neighborhoods.
It’s a price we have to pay, and a price that the civilians of countries who harbor these terrorists have to literally pay – occasionally even with their own flesh and blood. It’s regrettable and tragic and necessary. Because these people, our enemies, our setting off bombs in crowded airports and subways, killing people who never did them any harm. That’s not collateral damage; that’s murder. And it’s got to stop.