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Reply to a Question about Targeting Non-Combatants in War

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, 2005 © Peyke Iran

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi

Reader Dan Edge writes:

I’ve very much appreciated the TOS articles concerning the Islamic Totalitarian threat, particularly Dr. Brook and Dr. Epstein’s Just War Theory” article and Dr. Lewis’s “William Tecumseh Sherman” article. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Lewis recently at an NYU Objectivist Club event. Following his excellent lecture on “Why We Are Losing the War: Five Years After 9/11,” I posed a question to Dr. Lewis that I would also like to pose to the TOS staff (at Dr. Lewis’s recommendation):

In precisely what way does rights theory imply the moral necessity to target non-combatants in war?

To be clear, I believe rights theory does necessitate the targeting of civilians in war when it is an effective military tactic for defeating an enemy nation. But I ask this question as a devil’s advocate, because many [people] are very loudly proclaiming that the principle of individual rights prohibits the specific targeting of civilians.

The argument is usually phrased something like this: The government may use force only in retaliation against those who initiate its use. Civilians in an enemy nation have not initiated force against anyone. The fact that a civilian sanctions his (evil) government’s actions does not constitute an initiation of force. Therefore, though collateral damage to the civilian population is permissible when targeting the enemy military, specific targeting of civilians is not morally permissible.

This question assumes that a proper theory of rights implies the moral necessity of targeting non-combatants in war, but this is not necessarily so. It depends on the context. Objective rights theory—that is, rational egoism applied to the requirements of human coexistence—implies the moral necessity of protecting oneself and one’s rational interests from aggressors by whatever means necessary. In the context of a war, this means that the nation against which force has been initiated morally must use whatever retaliatory force is necessary to eliminate the aggressor as quickly and efficiently as possible—with as little risk to the lives of its own citizens as possible. If targeting non-combatants is required to achieve that end—as it was in World War II, and as it is in the war against Islamism—then egoism demands it.

In WWII, we had to break the will of the people in Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan. But in the war against Islamism (Islamism being the notion that the Koran is true, that it is to be taken seriously, and thus that unbelievers are to submit or be killed), we are dealing not just with the irrational ideology of the people of one or two countries, but with an irrational ideology embraced by millions of people in scores of countries. Islamism is an international movement bent on destroying the West and eliminating freedom from the planet. To put an end to this movement, we must demonstrate, once and for all, that to partake in it or to advocate it is to ensure personal destruction.

The spiritual center of Islamism is Iran, and the spiritual heads of Iran are the mullahs, imams, and teachers who call for strict adherence to the Koran and thus for the submission or murder of infidels (especially Israelis and Americans). These leaders should be our primary human targets; we should aim to kill as many of them as possible (all would be best) by bombing their mosques, madrassahs, and homes when they are most likely to be there. The unfortunate deaths of innocents (such as children) who would be killed in such an attack are the moral responsibility of those who embrace, advocate, or apologize for Islamism. When we, of necessity, kill innocents in a retaliatory attack against an aggressor nation, we do not violate the rights of those innocents; their rights are violated by those who necessitate our retaliatory force. As I said in an earlier, related post:

In circumstances such as these, there is a difference between the killer and the murderer. The murderer is the aggressor—the agent who initiates force and thus necessitates retaliatory force on the part of the victim. The victim, in retaliating, may kill [innocent] people in the process, but all such deaths are the responsibility of the aggressor.

He who necessitates the use of retaliatory force is morally responsible for the consequences of that force. So says the law of causality.

Let’s keep our concepts in order—and the blame where it belongs.

Aggressors include those who call for aggression—such as non-combatant Japanese imperialists during WWII and non-combatant Iranian mullahs today.

Non-combatants and innocents are not necessarily one and the same. If a mafia godfather orders the assassination of a police chief but does not himself pull the trigger, he is, in a sense, a non-combatant, but he is clearly guilty of murder; he is an aggressor. So too are the Islamists who call for “death to infidels” but who do not themselves hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings full of Americans. The preachers and teachers of Islamism are not innocent; they are guilty. And they are not merely legitimate targets; they are mandatory targets.

Contrary to the confusions (or evasions) of some, the question of whom to target in a war is not merely a strategic issue to be addressed only by military strategists; it is also, and more fundamentally, a philosophic issue to be addressed by those who understand the role of ideas in human life. This explains, in part, why our military strategy today is so deadly wrong. Today’s military strategists do not understand the role of ideas in human life; if they did, they would realize that, in order to achieve our security, we must destroy (not pacify) those who call for death to America. The question of which people must be killed to put an end to the current assault on the West is a philosophic question, and the answer to it is: those who preach or teach the idea that infidels must submit or be killed.

Finally, I do not think it is necessary or proper in today’s context, as it was in that of WWII, to target the general population of enemy states. Thanks to modern technology, we now have the ability to be more selective, and—so long as doing so does not place American civilians or soldiers in further danger—we should take advantage of that ability. Targeting the general population of an enemy state is moral if doing so is necessary to put a swift end to the aggression, but I do not think it is necessary today. Nor do I think it would work as it did in WWII. In today’s context, given the nature of the enemy, we need specifically to target, among other things, the intellectual leaders of the Islamist movement.

If we were to engage in a massive aerial bombing of Iranian military assets, Iranian government buildings, Iranian mosques and madrassahs (colleges in which students are trained to be Islamists), and the residencies of Iranian leaders, government officials, mullahs, imams, and teachers—and then explain to the world that, from now on, this is how America will respond to any and all threats to her citizens or allies—adherence to Islamism would suddenly lose its appeal worldwide. Muslims across the globe would either lose their religion altogether or opt for a watered-down, unserious version of it, as today’s Christians and Jews have done with their equally barbaric creeds.

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Image: Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, 2005 © Peyke Iran

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