Quick Reaction: Was the Syria Strike Morally Permissible?*

Thursday’s U.S. missile strike on Syria, in response to the earlier chemical attack by Assad’s regime, makes for great applied ethics material. I don’t have much time to explore this event in depth, but I thought I’d write up some brief thoughts on whether the strike was morally permissible, and then open it up for further discussion in the comments thread. I’ll set aside questions concerning whether this was prudent, whether it was Trump breaking a campaign promise, and whether the U.S. should have involved itself at all.

Now, in order to give this event its full consideration, we would want to consider what the likely political and military outcomes are from the attack, and what they would have been had the US not attacked. How will the Russians respond? Will this lead us down a slippery slope to a costly war? I don’t feel like I know enough to answer these questions and factor them into our evaluation of the whether the strike was morally permissible. I’ll set these kinds of consideration aside, and just focus on what we do know at present.

Assad’s regime used a chemical strike in opposition territory, killing at least 86, but maybe many more. Many of the victims were civilians, including children. The U.S. responded by firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. This base served as a starting place for the Syrian forces in their chemical attack. Six Syrian soldiers and nine civilians, including children, were killed by the U.S. strike. As detailed here, the Pentagon informed the Russians of their intentions to strike the base hours beforehand. The Syrians report that they too were informed ahead of the strike, leaving both time to move equipment and personnel.

So, was the strike permissible, given what we know?

I’ll assume that pacifism isn’t true. Such strikes are typically considered permissible when done in defense of a country that is facing immanent attack. That doesn’t apply here. The U.S. was not defending itself from Assad’s regime.

The strike might be permissible if it leads to less loss of life. Suppose Assad’s regime is now less likely to kill civilians. This would be a good result! We have to consider that the U.S. strike killed civilians, though. I think it’s plausible that the U.S. is not culpable for this civilian loss of life, however, given that they notified the Syrians with plenty of time in advance. This shows that the U.S. did not intend to kill civilians and gave the Syrians time to move its citizens out of the way, a responsibility that it has. And furthermore, at this time, I don’t think we know enough to say that this strike will lead to more lives saved than were killed. It’s not unlikely though.

Finally, the strike was plausibly a retributive action meant to punish the Assad regime. Given some of Trump’s comments, and the notification sent out before the attacks, this might be the best way to understand the U.S.’s actions, given what we know. It looks as though the missile strike was mostly to flex U.S. muscle, show that the administration is willing to fire, and send Assad the message that he better honor a certain set of rules that he overstepped. In the retributive case, that the strikes lead to less loss of life in the long run probably doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the punishment fit the crime. The strike would be like a fine or a jail sentence to a criminal. Assad broke the rules, and this is his punishment. I’m inclined to think the strike was permissible, if this was the purpose. The Assad regime had some sort of punishment coming, given its wrongful actions. Again, we have to consider the civilian loss of life, but the things I said above apply here too.

As of now, it seems plausible to me that the U.S.’s actions were permissible. To really feel confident in this assessment, I’d have to know more about the things I set aside in the beginning.

*Image from the US Navy/Handout/EPA.

Walter Montgomery

Walter is a philosophy graduate student in New Hampshire. He sometimes wishes he was a lawyer, and other times wishes he was a basketball coach. Some of his favorite childhood memories involve traveling with his immediate family, grandparents, and cousins’ family in big gas-guzzling vans towing campers. He sees philosophy as a tool for getting at Truth, and thinks too many contemporary philosophers see it as a tool for advancing their ideological preferences.

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18 Comments

  1. Hi Walter,
    You ask “was the strike permissible, given what we know?” and you seem to assume that we _know_ this earlier “chemical weapons attack” really did happen and that it was carried out by Assad.

    It would be really surprising if Assad were responsible. He was doing pretty well–driving back the jihadists and lunatics the west has been supporting–and he must remember that the US tried to use this same pretext of “chemical weapons” to attack him just a few years ago. (Luckily the Russians were able to restore a bit of sanity back then.) Why would he do the one thing that he knew to be most likely to trigger a US attack just when victory was beginning to seem likely? The same media and government people who assure us (without offering any real evidence) that Assad did this have clearly lied to the public about all kinds of similar things in the past. And they’re clearly not impartial observers. We have no reason to just trust them. So I don’t think we can claim to _know_ much about what happened, or who did it. Not knowing the relevant facts, launching missiles is probably not morally justified (unless Trump knows a lot that we don’t, which could be the case).

    You suggest the attack could be justified as some kind of retribution:

    “What matters is whether the punishment fit the crime. The strike would be like a fine or a jail sentence to a criminal. Assad broke the rules, and this is his punishment.”

    This raises further questions.

    (1) How is the US in a legitimate position to mete out such “punishments”? The US has rampaged all over the world, killing and destroying on a mass scale, usually for no good reason and usually with only very bad results. Anything Assad might have done to “his own people” pales in comparison to what the US has done to Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan (or Syria, for that matter). Morally, it seems weird to imagine that Ted Bundy gets to punish Jeffrey Dahmer, or that Josef Stalin gets to stand in judgment over Adolf Hitler. (Although that’s just what happened, strangely, with the full support of the US.)

    (2) What is the moral standing of these “rules” of warfare we’re supposed to care about? If ISIS were about to enter my town, I’d definitely use chemical weapons or anything else against them. It seems pretty arbitrary to insist that killing kids with chemical weapons is significantly worse morally than killing people at a wedding with drone strikes or dropping however many billion tonnes of bombs over Iraq, as the US does. (Yes, children really did die during all of that, though we didn’t get to see many pictures of their cute faces.) Surely what the US did to Japan in WWII was at least as horrific and evil as this (alleged) chemical weapons attack. Why is the one morally permissible but not the other?

    (3) If any regime anywhere in the world that breaks some supposed “rule” of warfare, such as killing civilians deliberately or using the “wrong” weapons, deserves to be “punished” by the US, the US will be involved in a never-ending global war. We know that China breaks “rules” like this sometimes. Should the US be launching missiles at China every once in a while? Morally speaking, it makes no difference that China is a real threat to the US but Syria is not.

    Finally, your arguments seem to depend on the assumption that it would be okay, morally, for Assad to lose his war against a bunch of head-chopping savages. But it could be reasonably argued that, given the horrible situation over there, the Assad regime is morally better than anything else that would be likely to replace it. So perhaps the US has a moral obligation to _support_ Assad rather than trying to “punish” him for what he may or may not have done in this life-and-death struggle against the (US-backed) scum of the earth.

    So I doubt this:

    “The strike might be permissible if it leads to less loss of life. Suppose Assad’s regime is now less likely to kill civilians. This would be a good result!”

    It wouldn’t be good if killing civilians is a necessary condition for defeating his enemies, and Assad defeating his enemies might well be the morally best outcome. You can’t win a war without killing lots of civilians. Definitely not this kind of war. I think the US went way too far in the past (e.g., Dresden, Hiroshima) but some killing of civilians is inevitable. (That’s one reason why the US never wins wars anymore. Stalin or Hitler would’ve had peace and order in Iraq in a few weeks, probably with far less death and destruction in the long run. Maybe the US should just outsource all military operations to China from now on? Make the whole thing more efficient, at least.) If the result of this US intervention is that Assad is now less able or less confident, worrying that (once again) the west will side with terrorist scum, that doesn’t seem like “a good result”. Of course, if the scum win, as the US establishment wants, there are going to be way more civilians killed than under Assad.

    • You’re way off-base here, Jaques.Sarin is not the sort of thing that gets deployed accidentally. Chemically, it requires certain precision in manufacturing. Also effective dispersion of it doesn’t happen accidentally either. Both are things that Al-Qaeda-associated rebels likely would not have the technical know-how, equipment or correct weaponry to use. Likewise, a wayward bomb blowing up a storage depot just doesn’t release the requisite components to form an aerosolized Sarin that spreads through the town, killing dozens.

      Furthermore, there is a lot of supposition and conspiracy-theorizing belying your comment:

      As for a motive, well, chemical weapons could terrorize a rogue populace into submission. Maybe he felt emboldened by Tillerson’s and Trump’s comments about him and the Syria war and Obama’s “lead-from-behind” foreign policy for years beforehand. I see no reason why you posited explanation as to why he wouldn’t gas his people is more compelling than the two I gave implying he would. What can be gratuitously asserted can be gratuitously denied.

      As for untrustworthy media, yes, they’re intellectually dishonest and often misleading. But it doesn’t follow that everything they report is false and intended to manufacture opinion for some sort of “globalist plot.” This sort of far-right appeal to the total depravity of anything establishment comes way to easily in an effort to excuse any sort of conclusion that is an anathema to alt-right views: “Putin’s stooge Assad allegedly gassed his own people. No! We like nationalistic strongman Putin and despise US inteventionism, so we’re going whitewash that he’s an autocrat who doesn’t like the West and that Assad is an evil man who gasses his own people and deny every negative thing suggesting that they are because The Jews…!” This sort of cognitive dissonance doesn’t indicate sound rational skepticism but someone in the throes of an ideology. And you’re not the only member of the alt-right, alt-lite or right-wing fringe I’ve seen who exhibits this type of behavior.

      I would also remind you that the likes of Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones at InfoWars have agendas too. They’re not in the business of truth-telling but propagandizing as well. And they’ve been way off before too with their speculations about this and that. In regard to a certain event, I doubt they call up people on the ground, contact relevant parties and do what journalists call reporting. Their internet-trawling, though sometimes useful, finds sources that are not more credible than the New York Times, CNN and BuzzFeed. They’re not paragons of truth-telling either.

      “Anything Assad might have done to “his own people” pales in comparison to what the US has done to Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan (or Syria, for that matter). Morally, it seems weird to imagine that Ted Bundy gets to punish Jeffrey Dahmer, or that Josef Stalin gets to stand in judgment over Adolf Hitler. (Although that’s just what happened, strangely, with the full support of the US.)”

      Really? This is the sort of absurd moral equivalence about the US I would expect from the left. The West is far from morally blameless, but qualitatively it’s better than a dictatorship that terrorizes, using conventional arms or otherwise, its own people.

      “What is the moral standing of these “rules” of warfare we’re supposed to care about? If ISIS were about to enter my town, I’d definitely use chemical weapons or anything else against them. It seems pretty arbitrary to insist that killing kids with chemical weapons is significantly worse morally than killing people at a wedding with drone strikes or dropping however many billion tonnes of bombs over Iraq, as the US does. (Yes, children really did die during all of that, though we didn’t get to see many pictures of their cute faces.) Surely what the US did to Japan in WWII was at least as horrific and evil as this (alleged) chemical weapons attack. Why is the one morally permissible but not the other?”

      Assad apparently has no qualms about killing non-combatants in gruesome ways. We do. Sure, this distinction about the means and intent is small comfort to the victims of collateral damage, but it absolves us as being morally comparable to Assad. The bombing of Hiroshima — Nagasaki admittedly had some unsavory motives about observing what this type of bomb would do — with the backdrop of World War II and the reality of total war as considerations, again casts doubt that what Assad does is not morally indistinguishable from we did in 1945. Do those considerations make it right? Do they mean the US should interfere in Syria? Not necessarily on both accounts. However, you’re starting to sound like Noam Chomsky, and you alt-right types claim enmity of the left? Given your penchant for false moral equivalence with the West and US, distaste for everything that is the status quo and the alt-movement or whatever as vast more defined and animated by what you’re against than of what you’re for, I failing to see much of a difference.

      “Stalin or Hitler would’ve had peace and order in Iraq in a few weeks, probably with far less death and destruction in the long run.”

      Again with this whitewashing of extremely brutal and evil men and the attempt to link the US as somehow morally comparable.

      The Holocaust in Wehrmacht-occupied Europe and Stalin at least killed 20 million of his own during his reign as premier in the Red Army-controlled Soviet Union strongly suggests otherwise.

    • I’m glad someone finally commented, Jacques!

      I think I’m with Jan on the issue of whether Assad used sarin gas. I’ll add that if the Trump team felt that the intelligence was solid, it must have been pretty solid. Trump has ample reason to distrust the intelligence community since he knows that there are elements of the “deep state” that are treasonously breaking their oath of office in order to subvert his presidency (“Resist! Resist! Resist!”). Despite this, his team seems to be sure that Assad’s regime was responsible.

      I agree that the retributive justification raises the issues you mention. With respect to (1), I don’t see any special reason the US should mete out the punishment (we are assuming, of course, that Assad’s regime does deserve punishment. I argued that it was merely plausible that it deserves punishment, and not that it actually deserves punishment. So really, my stance here is pretty weak. I don’t feel like i know enough to argue for the stronger claim, and I’m pretty “meh” on Trump right now.). So, why the U.S.? Because it is willing and able. I’d be happy if France decided to take the lead, though, since Hollande praised the the US’s actions (lol).

      Regarding claim (2), I guess it depends on which rules we are talking about. Frankly, i don’t find the use of chemical weapons to be that morally concerning; what’s bad is the seeming targeting of innocents. I don’t doubt the the US did as bad or worse things in Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere.

      Regarding point (3), if China breaks the rules of warfare (say, by targeting innocents), they too are deserving of punishment. But, the US, or anyone else for that matter, sure as heck should not bother issuing out that punishment, purely for pragmatic reasons. China could retaliate with equal or greater force, whereas Syria can’t. Many injustices go unaccounted for, alas.

      My argument does depend on the assumption that it would be okay for Assad to lose this war. I think it could be reasonably argued that the Assad regime is morally better than the other options. I don’t know what all the other options are. I’ve been to Syria, and though I’m far from a foreign policy expert, I’m inclined to think that not all of the anti-Assad forces are scum, though some certainly are. If the non-scum element cannot get power, then I imagine the US should back Assad, much like it did with Mubarak in Egypt, until Obama screwed that up.

      Now, you say that you can’t win a war without killing lots of civilians. I don’t know what counts as a lot to you, but I think there are probably some. For instance, the American Civil War had an estimated total of 50,000 civilian casualties, which doesn’t seem that bad compared to World War I. And I bet the great majority of those 50,000 are from collateral damage, and not from the specific targeting of civilians. At any rate, let’s say you can’t win a war without killing lots of civilians. Do you think it possible to justly win a war (following just war theory)? I’m not that familiar with just war theory, but I’m guessing it involves not intentionally targeting innocents.

  2. I often wonder, in my darker moments, if there aren’t certain regions that simply cry out for a repeat of Carthage.

    If there were any lingering doubt of man’s total depravity a single 24-hour cable news marathon should serve to dispel it.

    Putin wants to be an international power player with a seat at the Big Boy’s table so he’s using Russia’s military and Syria’s turmoil for his own ends, and Assad has seen enough from the “Arab Spring” to know what’s in store for him in the event of “regime change”.

    The two are a match made in hell.

  3. Hi Jan,
    Some comments…

    “I see no reason why you posited explanation as to why he wouldn’t gas his people is more compelling than the two I gave implying he would. What can be gratuitously asserted can be gratuitously denied.”

    What am I “gratuitously” asserting? I gave some reasons for thinking it would make no sense for Assad to do this. But I’m no expert, and for all I know your speculations about why he might well have done it anyway are correct. The upshot is that we have various speculations about why he might have done it, and other speculations about why he wouldn’t have done it. Where does that leave us? I only claim that we don’t know that he did do it. And that seems pretty clear to me. We have no real justification for believing that Assad did it, and we would have needed justification for believing that in order to be justified in launching missiles.

    “Sarin is not the sort of thing that gets deployed accidentally. Chemically, it requires certain precision in manufacturing. Also effective dispersion of it doesn’t happen accidentally either. Both are things that Al-Qaeda-associated rebels likely would not have the technical know-how, equipment or correct weaponry to use.”

    What do we really _know_ about who is able to manufacture sarin (if indeed that’s really what it was) and how likely it is that such people might give it to terrorists in Syria? Do we _know_ that it’s significantly _less_ likely that Al-Qaeda-associated people would have the “technical know-how or equipment” than it is likely that Assad would do something that seems so clearly self-defeating and pointless?

    Yes, I am extremely skeptical of almost anything reported in the mainstream media, or stated by western politicians. I believe our governments and media are _profoundly_ corrupt and dishonest. I don’t think it’s rational to dismiss such skepticism as “conspiracy-theorizing”. Or rather, I don’t think it’s rational to assume that there are no conspiracies–e.g., that the media and governments in the west are not involved in a conspiracy to mislead us about pretty much every important political event that’s happening in the world. I’m pretty sure there are lots of conspiracies, lots of elite people and groups getting together to screw us over because they think they’ll be better off that way. Isn’t that a reasonable hypothesis that explains a lot of what we observe?

    We already have so many examples of extreme bias, dishonesty and manipulation. Think of all that garbage about Trayvon Martin, for example. The US government and media did everything in their power to portray a (probably) blameless non-white person who was just defending himself against a life-threatening attack as a white racist murderer. As far as I can tell, they were trying to ensure that he’d end up in getting murdered by black criminals while doing a life sentence, and hoping there’d be lots of other racial violence across the US and even globally. (And they got what they wanted.)

    Or think about all the endless garbage about Russia “hacking” the DNC, then “hacking” the election. On and on. Clearly they are out to start something with Russia. The same people who ridiculed any fears about Russia back when Russia actually was a very serious threat, when there really was a Russian fifth column in the west, are now hysterical about Russia on the basis of absolutely nothing. This is obviously not “news” or “reporting” in any normal sense of the term. It’s propaganda.

    This is just a pair of examples out of a zillion, but why should a rational person trust anything that these proven liars and ideologues tell us about anything political?

    “The West is far from morally blameless, but qualitatively it’s better than a dictatorship that terrorizes, using conventional arms or otherwise, its own people.”

    If the west is not a dictatorship, what is it? Are western nations really free and self-governing? They don’t seem that way to me. I see the most successful system of propaganda and brainwashing in the history of the world. In the modern west, ordinary people are put in prison merely for stating that they want hostile foreigners to go home, or for stating opinions about history that the government doesn’t like. True, we don’t have a single dictator. Instead, things are dictated by a more complicated class of scum–corporate types, bankers, “educators”, etc. But we are definitely free or self-governing in any real sense.

    The other issue is the supposedly greater cruelty or immorality of Assad as compared with the west. I don’t understand how you can maintain this. The US has never even apologized for killing countless tens or hundreds of thousands of non-combatants in its pointless involvements in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. That seems to me _clearly_ worse than anything Assad may have done. Why is it relevant that he did this to “his own people”? If anything that might just make his actions less bad. He is at least confining himself to a brutal conflict in his own country, where he has a reason to be involved, and where there would probably be a net gain in his victory–whereas the US kills, maims and destroys on a far greater scale in places where there is no reason for the US to be involved in the first place, and where the result is just even more chaos and killing. (Were the Nazis better than the Soviets because they didn’t put “their own people” in camps?)

    I suppose you can argue that the west or the US doesn’t _try_ to kill non-combatants. We just do things that we know are going to lead to the deaths of inconceivable numbers of non-combatants, usually for no good reason. To me this doesn’t seem like a particularly strong reason for distinguishing between what we do and what Assad may have done. In addition, even if we don’t do it ourselves, we’re happy to help people who we know are going to do it. The US has been supporting entities far worse than Assad for a long time. Does it really matter morally that it’s American proxies and partners targeting innocents for murder, torture, slavery, etc? That would be a pretty legalistic argument for the moral superiority of the west.

    Maybe I do sound like Noam Chomsky. On this issue I do find that people on the left or far left are more sensible than a lot of right wingers (or liberals, or more moderate leftists). That doesn’t really worry me. I’m surprised that people on the right think the modern west is degenerate, immoral, corrupted by leftism, etc. and yet they ALSO think that when modern western media and governments want to go to war, these same degenerate and corrupt societies suddenly become moral and reasonable and trustworthy. (I’m not saying that’s your view, just that it’s not so strange for a right winger to agree with the left on this kind of thing.)

  4. Hi Walter,
    I think I understand better what you’re saying and I don’t wholly disagree.

    “Trump has ample reason to distrust the intelligence community since he knows that there are elements of the “deep state” that are treasonously breaking their oath of office in order to subvert his presidency (“Resist! Resist! Resist!”). Despite this, his team seems to be sure that Assad’s regime was responsible.”

    Maybe. Or maybe Trump is being blackmailed or threatened by the Deep State. Or maybe he had to make a deal with them to get some other things he wanted. Or maybe he was just trying to make a gesture that would get the media off his back about Russia. Or maybe Trump is less principled than we hoped, and he’ll do stuff like this for some purely political reason. Or maybe the intelligence community gave him information we don’t have that would make it somehow advantageous to attack Syria, but without morally justifying the attack. I think we just don’t know.

    “China could retaliate with equal or greater force, whereas Syria can’t. Many injustices go unaccounted for, alas.”

    Imagine two convicted murderers. One is some loser from the ghetto, the other is the President’s son. If the judicial system refuses to punish the second guy for fear that the President might kill the judges, and then goes on to punish the first guy, is this morally acceptable? It might be prudent, but it doesn’t seem moral. And the long-term effect of this kind of behavior would just be to undermine the judicial system. It would become pretty corrupt, right? And then it would seem morally odd, at least, to maintain that such a corrupt system still had the moral standing to mete out punishments. (You seem to be saying that _anyone_ can legitimately punish, so long as they’re “willing and able”. But isn’t that too quick? Even if X really is a murderer, and we all know it, does it follow that a lynch mob made up of rapists and muggers has the right to execute X?)

    “At any rate, let’s say you can’t win a war without killing lots of civilians. Do you think it possible to justly win a war (following just war theory)? I’m not that familiar with just war theory, but I’m guessing it involves not intentionally targeting innocents.”

    That’s a good question. I’m not familiar with just war theory either. I was a bit too extreme earlier. I guess the US could win a war against pygmies armed with clubs without killing lots of innocents or civilians. But the kind of war we’re contemplating here probably can’t be won that way. The Allies won in WWII only after (deliberately) killing huge numbers of civilians. I doubt they could have won otherwise. My intuition is that war is inherently unjust. Suppose you only kill combatants. Well, is it really just to kill some farmboy conscripted into Hitler’s army or brainwashed into fighting for the Taliban? Not sure about that. I’d be willing to argue that some wars are won in ways that are, overall, morally better than the alternatives (e.g., the kind of peace that was possible, or the victory of the other side). But I don’t think that would be “justice” in any normal sense.

    • I don’t wholly disagree with your points either. I said above that we know that the Assad regime used a chemical strike. Maybe that was too strong; I was using ‘know’ in the more colloquial sense, and not the sense I would use it when doing epistemology. I know that my car is parked outside. If you ask me whether I_really_ know, I’ll switch to epistemology mode and say that I don’t _know_ that my car is parked outside, since I haven’t looked for about 12 hours, and it could have been stolen, or slipped out of Park and rolled away. But, I’d readily bet a month’s salary that my car is still there.

      While I wouldn’t bet a month’s salary that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, I’m quite confident of it. As profound a distrust as I have for Western politicians and media, I don’t see that as justifying skepticism here. So while I think that there are conspiracies, and while I think that there are many in the media and positions of power who want to screw us over, I don’t think the claims of chemical usage are best explained by that. So what evidence do I have that sarin was used, and it was Assad’s regime? I have no evidence, other than testimony that traces back to experts and witnesses. It’s pretty easy to find claims of local doctors in news reports saying that the symptoms they were dealing with was pretty clearly sarin. Other experts have confirmed this, and Russia doesn’t seem to deny it either. They deny that Assad’s regime was responsible.

      So where do we get evidence for the claim of Assad’s regime being responsible? Again, testimonial evidence. It seems that the western military and intelligence are in unison about who is responsible. I guess it’s possible that these intelligence people, eye-witnesses, and weapons experts, across countries and agencies, are trying to screw us over and lie on this. It seems unlikely to me. It’s unlikely because of the number of people involved, but even more important, I think, is the number of different ideologies and interests of this collection of testimony on the part of the Western powers. The Trump government, Hollande government, May government, and Merkel government all attribute responsibility to Assad, despite there signficant differences (and Hollande and Merkel’s hatred of Trump). And notice that, although there is testimony from Assad and Russia to the effect that Assad didn’t do it, there is not the diversity of ideological opinion or the freedom of press to the extent that we have it in the West. So while I distrust any particular story in Western media, my speticism lessons as more *different types* of media agree (and, of course, there is incentive for them to disagree with rivals when they can do so reasonably. There is the possibility of growing viewership, intrigue etc.). So, that’s my case for believing the western media in this instance.

      Your question about lynch mob justice is a good one. I was afraid you might bring that point up, because I think it’s a possible weakness for any argument that the US’s actions were justified. So, let’s say that Assad’s regime was responsible and that it was morally wrong, such that it deserves punishment? I did imply that the US’s willingness and ability was enough to make it a worthy punisher in this case, and that was too quick. There are some differences between the US and the lynch mob though. For instance, the US is recognized as a legitimate governing body, whereas the mob is not. But, so is France, Mexico, Canada, and so on. So why should the US the right punisher? Well, maybe they all are, as legitimate governments, but none others were willing in this case. Or, maybe the US gets legitimacy from the support of other governments (that’s admittedly weak though, since many countries didn’t support the US’s attack).

      The best support would be if there is a legitimate US interest involved. Tillerson justified the attack by saying that it was in the interest of the American people because these chemical weapons–weapons that Obama claimed to have gotten out of the country–could fall into the hands of ISIS easily and then be used against it’s people. I think that’s a pretty good reason to act, if that is a legitimate risk, but I really do not know enough to assess that possibility.

  5. We just do things that we know are going to lead to the deaths of inconceivable numbers of non-combatants, usually for no good reason. To me this doesn’t seem like a particularly strong reason for distinguishing between what we do and what Assad may have done

    Jacques,

    There is a clear moral distinction between murder and an accident. Murder means that the chosen behavior is to kill an innocent person. An accident is not this chosen behavior. Simply foreseeing that deaths will occur does not equate to murder. For example, citizens and politicians foresee car accident related deaths, but that doesn’t make us murders for not outlawing cars.

  6. Hi Urban,
    I agree that murders and accidents are different, but I didn’t say that the west is guilty of murder because we facilitate murders carried out by others. (Though we are probably guilty of mass murder for other reasons, e.g., Dresden, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq…) The west is an accessory to murder in this respect, on a vast scale and over many decades. And I think that alone–accessory on a vast scale over many decades–is at least as bad as the sum total of bad things that Assad has done in his war against jihadists.

    But I’m also not saying (only) that the west accidentally kills hundreds of thousands of innocents in its poorly justified wars. Imagine that I ask you to drive over to my house, knowing that you’re a raging alcoholic, and convince you to have a few drinks. Once you’re plastered, I walk you over to your car and hand you the keys, knowing that school’s just letting out across the street, and now you run over some kids. I have significant responsibility for their deaths, no? What I did was not an accident, not excusable and not a minor moral transgression. It’s also different, I think, from citizens or legislators merely allowing people to drive cars in the knowledge that there will be a certain number of accidents as a result. For one thing, there are some important goods that we can achieve by letting people drive, but no important goods are realized by helping people drive drunk. Another thing is that we do what we can to reduce the incidence of accidents, using incentives and penalties, driver testing and speed bumps, etc. Whereas in my story I’m doing nothing to make harms to innocent others less likely, or less serious if they do happen, and I’m actually doing things that make harms far more likely.

    The west deliberately and knowingly supports psychopathic scum. We know they’re going to murder, torture and enslave people, and it seems that we support them _because_ their doing all of that will achieve something for us. (Or we think it will.) We supported Albanian criminals and terrorists against the Serbs, when we must have known what would happen in Kosovo once they were in charge. We helped a mob of savages torture and murder Qaddafi, when we could have just let him escape. We did all we could to hand over his country to murderous jihadists. Now apparently we’re trying to help a bunch of murderous jihadists overthrow Assad.

    It’s true that these murders and tortures aren’t our _ends_ but rather a means to other ends of ours. Is that morally important? Maybe the charge should really be conspiracy to murder, or something like that. The west is like Tony Soprano, who doesn’t often kill anyone himself.

    • Interesting CRD. I’d have to see the specific wording of the UN document to comment on whether we are acting in violation of it. Then, there is the question of just how bound we are to the UN, and legal binds probably come apart from moral binds sometimes.

  7. Hi Walter,
    The testimonial evidence seems unreliable. I’ve read that the area where this happened is ubder control of Al Qaeda. If that’s right the local doctors or other people would likely be very afraid of saying something that Al Qaeda wouldn’t like. And even if they are being honest that it was sarin, and they really are experts, that doesn’t tell us who is responsible. How would local people know this?

    As for western intelligence and military or governments being in unison, I think it’s reasonable to discount whatever they say. These are people who have lied to us (or maybe just been wrong sometimes) many times before. Remember the ridiculous and ever changing stories about Benghazi? Or the cover up about Saudi involvement in 9/11? Or go way back: the allies had to go to war with Germany because Germany invaded Poland, but not Russia even though Russia also invaded Poland at the same time. They are always lying to us. Besides, with the intelligence agencies, misleading and manipulating the public is part of their job anyway.

    It’s pretty far fetched to imagine ISIS using chemical weapons against Americans. But if that’s really the concern, why doesn’t America have a far stronger interest in _destroying_ ISIS and other Sunni fanatics? Why not support Assad with that goal, rather than _helping_ ISIS and similar groups? Once they win, you can bet it’ll be much easier for them to get any chemical weapons they want.

    The west always supports the Sunni nutjobs rather than their enemies. But Iran and Hezbollah and Assad don’t threaten us. For some reason we take the side of the Saudis and their nutjob proxies. Why? Why are we helping the Sunni nutjobs take over everywhere? If we want to protect ourselves from these same people, our behavior is crazy.

    • That’s a good point about it being Al Qaeda controlled, and I agree that that would make locals testimony less reliable for the reasons you mention.

      I don’t agree that we can discount the testimony of the Western intelligence community though. Granted, they have lied to us on all the occasions you mentioned, and others. But I haven’t seen much evidence that they _always_ outright lie, or even most of the time.

      Maybe I’m ignorant of how hard it would be for ISIS to use a chemical weapon, but it does’t seem that far-fetched to me that they would use such weapons if they had the chance, given that they’ve openly said they want to cause chaos in the US and the West, more broadly. You ask a good question that relates: “But if that’s really the concern, why doesn’t America have a far stronger interest in _destroying_ ISIS and other Sunni fanatics?” I think it does have a strong interest in doing just that, and I thought that was the goal, at least with Trump. I thought the US position was that it was too simplistic to draw things up as Assad, ISIS, and Al Qaeda–there are non-ISIS, non-Al Qaeda rebels worth backing that would be preferable to Assad. If that is the US’s position, a good question is whether there really are enough of this group to form a legitimate government when Assad falls. I really don’t know enough about Syria to say. If there aren’t enough, then I’m with you–support Assad and get rid of ISIS.

  8. “We have to consider that the U.S. strike killed civilians, though. I think it’s plausible that the U.S. is not culpable for this civilian loss of life, however, given that they notified the Syrians with plenty of time in advance. This shows that the U.S. did not intend to kill civilians and gave the Syrians time to move its citizens out of the way, a responsibility that it has.”

    It seems that, for that to be true, there has to some sufficient reason for thinking that the Syrian government would be both (a) competent to remove the civilians and (b) motivated to do so. I don’t think we have sufficient grounds for thinking either.

    • Oh come on. They don’t have the ability to move people nearby or on a military base, with military vehicles? And if they aren’t motivated to protect their own personnel and citizenry nearby or on a base, then that is definitely a fault of the Syrian government.

    • “And if they aren’t motivated to protect their own personnel and citizenry nearby or on a base, then that is definitely a fault of the Syrian government.”

      The Syrian government would presumably bear some moral responsibility in that case as well. But the question if whether the US’s action would be permissible. I’m saying that it partly depends upon the US’s grounds for believing that Syria will get civilians out of harm’s way. Think about a version where, though it’s their responsibility to do it, we were fully confident that Syria would _not_ remove their civilians. In that case, unless we had really strong reasons to attack, it seems clear that it’s not morally permissible to attack. It seems to me, that in the actual world, our grounds for thinking that Syria will remove their citizens successfully is not that great and that we don’t have particularly strong reasons for attacking in the first place.

    • “I’m saying that it partly depends upon the US’s grounds for believing that Syria will get civilians out of harm’s way.”

      I agree. In your imagined case, you can make a strong case that it isn’t moral to attack. I still think it’s plausible that the actual attack was permissible. For all we know, they did have reason to believe that they would get civilians out of harms way. I’d have to know more about the particular case. But let’s suppose that the US didn’t have good reason to believe that they would get civilians out of harms way. I’m not sure what counts as a strong reason to attack, but who knows? Maybe they had a strong reason. Imagine that they knew another chemical attack, originating from this same base and likely to kill 10s or 100s more civilians, was more likely than not. That doesn’t sound crazy to me, but again, we just don’t know much, and my main point was that it is plausibly permissible.

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