Last night, watching the debate, I witnessed a bizarre interchange in which Hugh Hewitt appeared to assert that it is a necessary qualification for the presidency of the U.S. that one be willing to kill “thousands” of “innocent children.” I figured I would wait to blog it until I could see a transcript, since I could hardly believe I had heard it correctly. Newsbusters has the video and transcript:
HUGH HEWITT: Doctor Carson, you mentioned in your opening remarks that you’re a pediatric neurologist surgeon —
BEN CARSON: Neurosurgeon.
HUGH HEWITT: Neurosurgeon. And people admire and respect and are inspired by your life story, your kindness and evangelical core support. We’re talking about ruthless things tonight. Carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander in chief?
BEN CARSON: Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them, “We’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor.” They’re not happy about it and they don’t like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me. Sometimes you, I sound like him [Motions to Trump.] You know, later on, you know they really realize what’s going on and by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job rather than death by 1,000 pricks.
HEWITT: So you are okay with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians? [Audience booing.]
CARSON: You got it. You got it. [Pointing at the audience.]
HEWITT: That is what war— Can you be as ruthless as Churchill was in prosecuting the war against the Nazis?
CARSON: Ruthless is not necessarily the word I would use but tough, resolute, understanding what the problems are and understanding that the job of the president of the United States is to protect the people of this country and to do what is necessary in order to get it done.
I was pleased to hear a Republican audience booing Hewitt. I often worry that we have become very casual about the killing of innocent people, slapping the label “war” on it to avoid thinking about it too closely. The boos told me that not everyone thinks this way.
This is not mere handwringing in an attempt to show myself to be morally superior. This is an attempt to get people to think more deeply about the justification for killing innocent people.
Murray Rothbard said in his classic essay War, Peace, and the State:
If Smith and a group of his henchmen aggress against Jones and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones has no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of his “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance his pursuit, to conscript others into his posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of his struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones should do any of these things, he becomes a criminal as fully as Smith, and he too becomes subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality.
This seems easy to understand when “Smith” (the “collateral damage” in the example) is a sympathetic figure. Take the Peasants’ Crusade in the last few years of the 11th Century. Peasants on their way to retake Jerusalem massacred Jews and stole their property. They rationalized that they were on a holy mission, and they needed the money — and the people they were taking it from were nonbelievers anyway, so what’s the big deal? They were embarked on a just war, and in a just war, sometimes innocents have to die.
That example makes the peasants seem like criminals — in part because many do not sympathize with their mission, and in part because the Jews seem sympathetic. But in the 11th Century, the cause appeared quite just to Westerners — and the Jews seemed unsympathetic indeed.
What about drone strikes? Many Americans seem perfectly comfortable with the notion that innocent people must die in drone strikes if that’s how you get the bad guys. I think we tend to assume that birds of a feather flock together. If people are close enough to a terrorist to be killed if you drone-strike him, that’s on them, amirite?
Except that, by that logic, if the government had learned that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were jihadis, it would have been justified in drone-striking them and anyone who happened to be at a year-end meeting with them. What are those people doing in the company of a couple of jihadis anyway?
Ah, but those are Americans! It’s not the same in Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq, some seem to think. Over there, if you’re near a terrorist, you’re fair game. Over here, maybe not. Which raises the question, if had we drone-struck a San Bernardino mosque, with Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook inside, would you have supported that, even if a couple dozen civilians died in the process?
It’s an “us and them” mentality. But we have had that mentality throughout human history. In the 11th Century, the Jews massacred by followers of Peter the Hermit were “them.” Now we have a different “them” — but if they are innocent, they are still human.
The “us and them” mentality seemed to reach peak insanity earlier this week, with the “debate” that arose with respect to the genius idea of “taking out” families of terrorists — not, it appears, because we believe them to be terrorists as well, but because that would be a way to hurt the terrorists. This genius idea was walked back at the debate and afterwards, but it was still said. In America.
Earlier this week, Ken White linked a Boing Boing article on his Facebook page titled Hey, why don’t we store our nuclear launch codes inside some poor guy’s chest. It described a 1981 thought experiment that went like this:
[W]hat if the codes to launch nuclear war were kept inside the chest-cavity of a young volunteer, and the President would have to hack them out of this young man’s chest before he could commence armageddon?
The professor who proposed it is quoted as saying: “When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, ‘My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.'”
Us and them.
In reality, if a President launches such a war, the codes should be inside his own chest. If it’s important enough to kill 100,000 or millions of innocent civilians (“them”), maybe it’s important enough that one of “us” die to allow that to happen. Just a thought to bring home the reality of it.
I don’t think being willing to kill thousands of innocent children should be a qualification to be President. I think a willingness to question that idea should be.