Moral reasoning betrays a double standard

Scott Laderman

It is not often a columnist is willing to admit in print he was wrong, but here it goes.

Since Sept. 11, I have consistently argued against a military response to the atrocities in New York and Washington, D.C. As a result I have been chastised by numerous people in Minnesota and across the United States for naively insisting any campaign to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice must adhere to federal and international law.

Working outside the framework of multinational legal institutions, I believed, would only legitimize the principle of any country unilaterally taking any action against any other, including against the United States. Under the present circumstances, Washington would forfeit the right to object to such transgressions.

My critics have maintained war is the only means of confronting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and legal prohibitions must not restrain the United States from acting without U.N. authorization, as Washington has chosen. Until yesterday I disagreed.

That was when I watched the live interview with bin Laden on al Jazeera, the Arab news network based in Qatar. His absolute inhumanity left me speechless. For those who have not yet seen the footage – it was aired after most news deadlines in this country but can be viewed online – bin Laden admitted to planning the attacks on Sept. 11.

The most frightening portion of the interview, in my opinion, was the following exchange between bin Laden and journalist Ibrahim Helal:

Helal: “We have heard reports that upwards of 6,000 civilians died on Sept. 11. I mean, that’s more people than have died this year in the Palestinian intifada. And you know, is the price worth it?”

Bin Laden: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is

worth it.”

Clearly bin Laden has placed himself outside the moral orbit of humanity. He obscenely justified taking thousands of innocent lives by saying the United States represents a threat to the security of the civilized world. The only way to deal with such a threat, he bizarrely claimed, was to inflict tremendous suffering on American civilians in the hope they’ll overthrow their government.

While for years, I have been a persistent critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East, bin Laden’s statements nonetheless horrified me. In the last twelve hours, I have become convinced that such evil – or the “evildoers,” as President George W. Bush called them – can only be confronted through military force.

Despite bin Laden’s assertions to the contrary, there is no excuse for targeting innocent civilians. Anyone who does so must be held accountable. And the only way to deal with persons who would excuse the murder of thousands as “worth it” – such an obscenity conjures up visions of Hitler and Stalin – is to eliminate them before they can sow further terror.

Now pause for a moment.

If you have read this far, and if you share my revulsion at bin Laden’s effort to rationalize widespread human carnage, then I apologize for misleading you in one important respect: Osama bin Laden never gave such an interview. I lied about the interview and I lied about abandoning my opposition to the war, which remains steadfast. But if the words from the interview sound
vaguely familiar, there’s a reason.

They mirror those uttered by Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later the U.S. Secretary of State, in an interview with Lesley Stahl of CBS in 1996. The two women were discussing the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iraq. The exchange went as follows:

Stahl: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

If you were outraged by bin Laden’s fabricated statement justifying the killing of innocent civilians, as I hope you would have been, then I expect you to be similarly outraged by Madeleine Albright’s effort to do the same – and in your name.

Of course, as with all historical cases, there are differences between the situation in Iraq and the attacks of Sept. 11. But in the perpetrators’ utter disregard for human life, there is a striking similarity. Both believe the killing of civilians – whether 6,000 in New York and Washington or upwards of 1,000,000 in Iraq – is a legitimate means of achieving their objectives.

I have little doubt letters will start pouring into the Daily from those appalled by the mere suggestion of similarities between the actions of the United States and those responsible for the atrocities on the East Coast. After all, this would contradict everything people have been told by their political leaders and the media since Sept. 11 about “good versus evil” or the “civilized world” and “the evil one” attempting to destroy it.

But consider the words and actions of those most intimately familiar with the economic sanctions that today will kill about 150 Iraqi children, just as they killed about 150 yesterday and will kill another 150 tomorrow. For instance, former U.N. Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, who served as the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, resigned his position in Oct. 1998 to protest what he subsequently referred to as the sanctions’ “genocidal impact.”

His successor, Hans von Sponeck, resigned in protest one year later, asserting afterward the sanctions “must be lifted now. Today, not tomorrow.” Von Sponeck’s resignation was followed by that of Jutta Burghardt, director of the United Nation’s World Food Program for Iraq, who quit the next day.

There has been a lot of talk recently about how the United States, unlike those who attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center, does not intentionally target noncombatants. This claim is ridiculous and only reveals the historical amnesia of those making it.

As recently as two years ago, the Clinton Administration specifically targeted Yugoslav journalists during NATO’s Kosovo campaign, killing at least 16 people and injuring 16 others when bombing a television and radio facility. After a careful examination of the evidence, Amnesty International designated this action a “war crime.”

And in Iraq, civilians have been targeted for over a decade. As Professor Thomas Nagy of George Washington University recently wrote following his examination of documents from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, “(C)ontrary to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. government intentionally used sanctions against Iraq to degrade the country’s water supply after the Gulf War. The United States knew the cost that civilian Iraqis, mostly children, would pay, and it went ahead anyway.”

Throughout, Nagy maintained, the American leadership has been “more concerned with the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis,” including the 5,000 or so who have died since Sept. 11. It is true they have slowly starved or died of preventable diseases rather than quickly perishing in a collapsing building, but are people really prepared to argue one is less objectionable than the other?

I am absolutely not justifying terrorist incidents against the people of the United States. As I have repeatedly stated since Sept. 11, the slaughter of civilians cannot be excused. But I fear many Americans – convinced of the righteousness of U.S. military retaliation – have failed to fully consider the implications of their position.

If they grant Washington the moral right to invade Afghanistan outside the framework of international law, as many have, then as a matter of principle they are granting, say, Cuba, Colombia, Indonesia or Sudan a similar right to invade the United States. After all, the U.S. government harbors and has occasionally sponsored Cuban-exile terrorists; it funds a military directly and indirectly responsible for widespread atrocities in Colombia; it has trained the brutal KOPASSUS units in Indonesia “legendary for specializing in torture, disappearances and night raids on civilian homes” (stated by investigative journalist Allan Nairn); and it has perpetrated terror against Sudan.

And unless we wish to live in a world of glaring double standards in which justice exists only for the powerful, Iraq would be fully justified (under the current logic of Washington) in invading the United States, which has been illegally bombing Iraq for years.

But I do not grant the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein this right. This is why I believe we must oppose the war against Afghanistan, not only on pragmatic grounds – it escalates the likelihood of future anti-American terror – but also as a matter of principle.

Once we legitimize unlawful war against those whose leaders commit, finance or sponsor acts of terror, we legitimize war against ourselves.


Scott Laderman’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]