Sunday, August 07, 2005


Sixty years ago, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II. Those bombs killed 120,000 civilians instantly, and another quarter of a million died later due to the after-effects.
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(This is a variant of a comment I made on the BattlePanda blog.)

Okay, I'm a little bit hesitant to say anything about Hiroshima; the enormity of what happened there is almost beyond words. On the other hand, there isn't much point in remembering the past if we don't try to take it into account. I'm afraid that what I'm going to say will offend some (I'm not too worried about it, since I only have two or three readers...)

In the middle of this Global War on Terror® we really need to get clear in our minds: What is terrorism? Was the US commiting acts of terrorism when we bombed Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Dresden, Berlin, Cambodia? What about the "Shock and Awe" campaign in Iraq? I'm sure that to some, asking such questions makes me anti-American, but it's really hard for me to understand what is the point of political freedom, if not to question decisions made by our government.

Were these bombings terrorism?

The rule of thumb that we've been going by recently is that terrorism is intentional infliction of harm on civilians in order to weaken a nation's resolve or to convince them to change their policies. I don't see any way to look at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and see anything other than terrorism.

The intent was to terrorize the Japanese people, to weaken their resolve to keep fighting. There was no other purpose. That doesn't mean that I disagree with the claim that fewer lives were lost in the atomic bomb blast than would have been lost in a conventional endgame.

So what does it mean if we defend the bombing of Hiroshima, but condemn terrorism? I think it's a little muddled, and not as straight-forward as saying that the ends never justify the means. Obviously, we don't really believe that.

Our real beef with terrorists is either that we don't approve of the ends (which we certainly don't in the case of Islamic extremists), or else we think that they are doing their cost-benefit analysis wrong (even if the ends are admirable, they might not be worth the massive loss of civilian life).

There's another aspect of killing civilians that I have trouble getting a firm grip on: Is there a moral difference between an action that you know will have 10,000 innocent civilian casualties as "collateral damage", and an action that intentionally kills 10,000 civilians? If so, why?


Anonymous Inquisitor said...

Yours is definitely one of the few observations that i've come across that does not take the word 'Terrorism' as a generic category for non-state soliders. Good one!

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Rich said...

Have you been reading about Douglas Burgess's article in Legal Affairs which cites the laws on piracy as a historical precedent which may be applied to terrorism? I think it's pretty good stuff:

The corollaries between the pirates' "war against the world" and modern terrorism are profound and disturbing. With their vengeful practices, pirates were the first and perhaps only historical precedent for the terrorist cell: a group of men who bound themselves in extraterritorial enclaves, removed themselves from the protection and jurisdiction of the nation-state, and declared war against civilization. Both pirates and terrorists deliberately employ this extranationality as a means of pursuing their activities. The pirates hid in the myriad shoals and islands of the Atlantic. The terrorists hide in cells throughout the world. Both seek through their acts to bring notice to themselves and their causes. They share means as well—destruction of property, frustration of commerce, and homicide. Most important, both are properly considered enemies of the rest of the human race.

He describes how there are people, there are states, and there are those who set themselves outside the state to conduct private wars. These lie at the hart of the distinctions between acts of mass destruction committed by criminals, terrorists, and states.

9:02 PM  

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