Double effect or double standards?

The village of Damadola in Northwestern Pakistan felt the earth shake. Houses collapsed and men, women and children were killed. When it was over, the US air strike had killed 18 local people, sparking outrage.

    For their part, the Americans claimed that they had attacked after receiving intelligence reports that al-Qaida militants were in the area. The villagers, however, profess that everyone killed was innocent. No reports have been confirmed as yet.


    Architects of US foreign policy might argue that such deaths, while tragic, are unavoidable in the War on Terror.


    In order to "take the fight to the terrorists", those who are plotting to attack America must be targeted wherever they are hiding, even it that means bombing whole villages on circumstantial evidence. Those who support such a policy often appeal to what is termed the "theory of double effect" to justify their position.


    The theory of double effect seeks to draw a distinction between actions where the primary purpose is to kill, and actions where the primary purpose is not to kill but where the outcome is that people are killed.


    "Killing is killing no matter how it is done, no matter what the excuse."

    Gypsie, US

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    An example of this theory in action would be the difference between a fighter pilot bombing a hospital or a school specifically in order to cause the deaths of the people inside, and a fighter pilot bombing a munitions factory filled with workers, in order to destroy the enemy's capacity to wage war. In both cases, the people inside will die as a result of the attacks. 


    However, the theory of double effect holds that since the attack on the munitions factory was not directly intended to kill people - though it is the inevitable outcome of such an action - the attack should not be seen as immoral, since the only reason people died is because they happened to be there, not because they were the primary targets. Tragic, but understandable. This is war, after all.


    How would we react if a London bus was attacked tomorrow by Chinese missiles because the Chinese government received intelligence that an outspoken dissident of the Chinese Communist Party might be on board? 

    Is this an adequate justification for killing people who are clearly innocent? Though it may seem morally acceptable when fighting terrorists - those whom we are told represent the "ultimate evil" - it is important to explore this philosophy from the other side, when it is our lives that are affected, our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers who are killed, tearing our lives apart.


    Was the IRA pub bombing in Guildford justified because it was designed to kill a policeman working on the case, even though the people drinking that night had nothing to do with him, didn't know him?


    How would we react if a London bus was attacked tomorrow by Chinese missiles because the Chinese government received intelligence that an outspoken dissident of the Chinese Communist party might be on board? 


    Would we feel somehow reassured if the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Centre claimed that there were business people working on the 42nd floor who controlled the funding to corporations that funded military operations in the Middle East?


    What if the 7 July bombers had claimed that there were legitimate targets on board the Tube - a banker who approved the loan for the Ministry of Defence to buy uniforms for the troops who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, or a lawyer who drafted documents for the British government, or a sympathiser of an ultra-national political party who incited hatred against immigrants living in Britain?


    Would we accept that the theory of double effect meant that our loved ones were simply collateral damage, dying for no other reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, sitting next to the wrong person?


    I think such claims would provide little or no consolation, and our resentment of those who brought death to us all would only grow stronger.


    What happened on the 7 July was murder. What happened in Damadola was murder. If 7 July was unjustifiable regardless of the direction of British foreign policy, how is firing missiles at a village without provocation not similarly unjustifiable? In both cases it was innocent people who died, who were brutally killed as they went about their daily lives.


    In other words, we cannot hide behind the theory of double effect as a flimsy excuse for pursing policies that rain bombs down on villagers simply because someone informs the military that a terrorist might have been invited to dinner there, any more than the 7 July bombers can hide behind their claims that they are acting in the name of victimised Muslims everywhere.


    No one can take the moral high ground if people are killed in our name, whatever ideology we subscribe to, whatever injustices we believe we have suffered, whatever good we believe might come out of it.


    Undoubtedly, some will argue that we cannot be concerned with the niceties of ethics in this life-or-death struggle against terrorists.


    Even if such twisted logic can be seen to justify the attack on Damadola because the people who died were not the intended targets, and even if it turns out to be confirmed that terrorists were in fact killed, we still have to ask whether such attacks are strategically beneficial.


    This attack was clearly counter-productive. We can add another 100 or so people to the ever-increasing list of those whose lives have been affected negatively by US foreign policy.


    It will also increase the domestic pressure on Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf, further destabilising his precarious position. It is not in anyone's interest for the government of Pakistan to be put under even more strain.


    Furthermore, the idea that killing a few "top ranking al-Qaida members" will lead to its demise is simply naive. Al-Qaida is not and has likely never been a highly centralised organisation, entirely dependent on those at the top to co-ordinate plans and issue commands.


    It is a transnational, decentralised organisation, with highly autonomous cells acting almost independently from one another, spread around all corners of the world.


    We cannot hide behind the theory of double effect as a flimsy excuse for pursing policies that rain bombs down on villagers simply because someone informs the military that a terrorist might have been invited to dinner there.

    It would be better to imagine al-Qaida as a franchised corporation, with different cells making decisions informed by local circumstances. Even better, think of al-Qaida as a brand name, the Nike of anti-Western ideologies.


    Just as knocking off the CEO of a major company would not diminish its capacity to distribute its products or run its advertisements, so too al-Qaida will persist as long as there is a market to which it can appeal.


    More and more people are increasingly fed up with what are perceived to be our double standards, where the lives of Westerners killed in terrorist attacks are worth far more than the seemingly throwaway casualties of Damadola.


    Remember that their lives were worth living too.

    [Joshua Hergesheimer is a Canadian freelance columnist based in the UK. His writing focuses on the implications of political violence in contemporary society.]

    The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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