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Unthinking Death

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Monday, April 25, 2011 at 10:21 AM

The press coverage today of the leaked files concerning the Guantanamo detainees provides a dramatic contrast with public discussions over the operations in Libya.  The focus on the detainees is agonizingly particularized and personal.  By contrast, we know nothing about the individuals who are being killed by U.S. military operations in Libya and probably never will, even though death is a more serious infringement of liberty than detention.

There has been much debate (including on this blog) about the legality of the U.S. military operations in Libya, under both constitutional law and international law.  There has also been significant public debate about the policy wisdom of the operations – in particular, whether they are consistent with U.S. strategic interests.  There has been relatively little focus, however, on the moral questions associated with killing fellow human beings in Libya.  Even recent criticisms of the use of drones there, such as this op-ed by David Ignatius, have been concerned more with perceptions in the Muslim world than with morality.

Killing is of course an inherent part of war, and it is also common in warfare to dehumanize the enemy.  Our modern technology, however, is making it particularly easy to wage war without thinking about death.  In the past, the seriousness of war has been impressed upon us by the risk that our own soldiers would bear.  They placed their lives on the line, and we mourned and were reminded of the human face of combat when there were casualties.

In Libya, however, we wage war from a safe distance, with missiles and bombs launched from jets, ships, and unmanned drones.  We press buttons and people die, with almost no risk to our own forces.  The human cost of war is off-stage and largely out of our consciousness.  (A sad exception were the recent deaths and injuries suffered not by U.S. soldiers but by a group of war photographers, as reported here.)  To a great extent, the moral aspects of taking human life, and the attendant seriousness of war, are pushed away.  Libya is not the only example of this phenomenon, but it is a vivid example of a trend.

None of this is to suggest that the killing that the U.S. government is carrying out on our behalf in Libya is immoral.  Most of us believe that killing can be justified under the right circumstances, and there may be good moral justifications for aiding the Libyan rebels by killing Qaddafi’s forces.  (I am currently agnostic on the question, in part because I do not have a good sense of who the rebels are, although apparently they include a former detainee from Guantanamo, as reported here.)  Moreover, if the United States is going to wage war, in Libya or elsewhere, it is natural for it to seek ways to minimize harm to U.S. forces.  The ability of technology to allow for more precise targeting, and thus fewer civilian casualties, also has obvious moral appeal.

What should concern us, though, is that the ease of waging war may be obscuring moral considerations associated with taking human life.  Even if we do not think about them, these considerations exist, and, as citizens in a democracy, we bear some responsibility for the actions that our government takes.

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