My government, using an unmanned Predator aircraft, bombed a remote Pakistani village in an attack which they knew would kill civilians and thought might also kill al Qaeda leaders, which in turn might reduce al Qaeda's ability to kill U.S. citizens. Our government felt the certain loss of Pakistani lives was worth the possibility, twice removed, of saving American lives.
On 9-11 al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade center, in an attack that the knew would kill civilians, on the hope that it would lead the US to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia.
Thus we see the difference between the Bush administration and al Qaeda; we see why we fight. Al Qaeda deliberately targets civilians. The Bush administration launches attacks that they know will kill civilians, but which are intended to kill combatants, even if they actually have a small chance of doing so.
This distinction looks a little like a notion in Catholic medical ethics known as the doctrine of double effect, which has its roots in Aquinas. The idea is roughly that it is ok to do something that you know will be hurtful, if the hurt is just a side effect of something you intend that does a greater good. (Consequentialism on the cheap for deontologists.) But the Bush bombing can’t even be justified this way: the long chain of uncertainties between the bombing and any positive outcome is easily crushed by the surety of the death of innocents.
Whatever the line that separates American tactics from al Qaeda tactics, it is apparently of immense moral importance. Bin Laden talked of a truce in his most recent audiotape, to which our esteemed vice president replied “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” (This is a line I never understood: if you are in a war, who else would you negotiate with, besides the enemy? When Arafat was still alive and Sharon was still conscious, Sharon would always refuse to negotiate with Arafat because he was a terrorist. Instead, the Israelis would negotiate with someone else who is not actually attacking them, like I dunno, Finland, and hope that a settlement with the Fins would somehow transfer over to the Palestinians.) Whatever the line is that separates American who kill civilians from al Qaeda people who kill civilians is, it is so significant that it makes the people from al Qaeda subhuman. You cannot talk to them, their demands are never reasonable, because the way they kill civilians is worlds apart from the way we kill civilians. Even when we torture innocent civilians, we rise above the action of the accursed enemy.
Of course, this all depends on the assumption that the lives of Pakistani civilians are as important as the lives of Americans. As I drove Caroline home from school today, I listened to an administration spokesperson on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. A caller wanted to know if the administration would have bombed the village if they knew Americans would be killed. For a follow up question, he asked if the administration could provide a ranking of nationalities in terms of how acceptable it was to kill them. The administration person mostly talked about how unlikely it would be that any Americans would have been in that village. She did add, though, that anyone who was there should know the consequences of associating with terrorists. (Or the risks of associating with people who might be terrorists, or the risks of being in a place where people who might be terrorists might be.) The response was remarkably disingenuous--bullshit, even. We all know that evidence that al Qaeda leaders were in Dearborn, Michigan would not lead to a bombing on US soil. We also know that when Canadians are accidentally killed in a US attack, we at least express our “deepest sorrow and sympathy”. When Pakistanis die, though, they should know not to associate with terrorists.
The ethics of impartiality--the basic idea that all lives are of equal worth--gets a bad rap from people like Carol Gilligan, Nell Noddings, and other “care ethicists,” who argue for favoritism towards people like your own family. I swear, though, if the combatants of the world held themselves to the same standards they use to denounce their enemies, war itself would end. The bloodshed continues because people are always willing to make exceptions for themselves. Our war crimes are not war crimes; they are symbols of our resolve. Our torture camps are not torture camps; they are justice in a post 9-11 world. Our wiretaps are not wiretaps. Our crusade is not a crusade.