You’re not allowed to kill civilians

It's been awhile so it seems again it's time for a helpful reminder that noncombatant immunity isn't just a good idea, it's the law.

In other words: You're not allowed to kill civilians.

Killing civilians is against the law. Killing civilians makes you a criminal.

Yes, but …

No buts about it. You're not allowed to kill civilians.

And, also: You're not allowed to kill civilians.

This is neither new nor controversial, yet putting the matter in such stark terms always seems to upset people.

On the one hand, this isn't surprising since the killing of civilians has become a scarcely remarkable, dog-bites-man commonplace. Yet it's still surprising that anyone could find this elementary notion upsetting: You're not allowed to kill civilians. If you're one of those people who finds this upsetting, bear in mind what it is that you're upset about. Apparently someone you feel ought to be immune from criticism has been killing civilians and you feel I'm criticizing them by pointing out — in the most abstract terms, without any mention of particulars — that this is something that no one is allowed to do.

"What you really mean …" people say — because they're certain that when I say "You're not allowed to kill civilians" I must really mean something other than "You're not allowed to kill civilians" — "What you really mean is that you're not not allowed to target civilians."

No.

What I really mean — and again it's not just me, or my opinion, or my preference, it's the law — is that You're not allowed to kill civilians.

"But what if …?" And here come the hypotheticals (which aren't really necessary since the world is full of actuals) positing all the many scenarios in which it is not only acceptable, but obligatory, to take some action that will, in fact, result in civilians getting killed.

The common thread in all of these scenarios — hypothetical or actual — is the idea of double effect. A doctor, for example, is bound by oath to "do no harm." Slicing someone with a razor-sharp knife would certainly seem to constitute doing harm. But if the doctor is slicing someone with a scalpel because this cutting is an inescapable part of surgery needed and intended to heal, then the doctor may — perhaps even must — perform such slicing without violating her oath. The harm done by the slicing is an unavoidable second effect and is not the doctor's main intent. The slicing could be called — to borrow the military phrase — "collateral damage."

Military officers really can, do and must think in such terms. That's what separates an army from a barbarian horde. That's what separates a soldier from a thug with a gun.

The key elements here are the intent, the justice/goodness and necessity of the primary effect, and the inescapable/unavoidable nature of the secondary, unintended effect. All of which sets the bar considerably higher than the oversimplified cartoon version of "the ends justifies the means."

If there is any possible way to achieve the intended effect without producing the unintended effect, then double-effect does not apply — the doctor may not slice, the general may not attack. If there is any possible way to achieve the necessary intended effect without producing the unintended effect and you act, instead, in a way that produces this secondary effect, then you have not produced "collateral damage," you have simply slaughtered civilians.

And, by the way, You're not allowed to kill civilians.

  • Andrew

    Scott’s point, when the libertarian rhetoric is stripped out, is still valid. We get enraged by the killing of civilians by those whom we are inclined to hate anyway, and shrug when it’s committed by those with whom we tend to identify. It’s a natural reaction because when we see things on a TV (or computer) screen, our brain to some extent processes it as less real than if we experienced it.
    It’s also a reaction that we should fight.

  • Steve

    Well, when I say “tactics”, I’m talking about actual military maneuvers. As in, a better way to storm a building, a cleaner way to blow up a factory, etc., etc. I simply don’t see the value in studying ethics; what we should be studying instead are practical ways of destroying the enemy with as few losses (civilian and military) as possible
    Why would you possibly want to find ways to better storm a building and minimize loss of life?
    Hmmmmmm….
    Could it be, say, because you have some moral or ethical framework that says “we should try to minimize loss of life”?
    You’re confusing me with your resistance to my original statement. Sure, if you think I mean “let’s sit around in a class room and discuss made up situations with no basis in reality and go no further”. But I mean just what you are saying “let discuss the changing face of warfare, look at the challenges, determine new tactics/strategies to minimize the loss of life, and then use those strategies”. We’ve got have some higher moral/ethical framework to want to do this.
    There is debate about the torture that took place at Abu Graib, but even if higher ups were NOT approving this, the soldiers that took part in these activities were lacking an ethical framework for why torture is wrong (and not just “because it doesn’t work).

  • Erick Oppeen

    As far as suicide bombers go…my brother and I were sitting talking and watching the news once out at his place, and a report about a suicide bomber came on. He turned to me and said, basically, that while I’m his brother and he loves and trusts me, if I’d gotten my neighbors mad enough at me to be making literal suicide runs on the chance of taking me out, he’d have some very tough questions for me about what I might have done.

  • Angelika

    cjmr’s husband wrote: It’s time the people of the world realised that there will NEVER be peace in the middle east
    ‘Never’ is a strong word – who knows how the world will look like in a few hundred years from now (I mean who knows, who is not the Left-Behind fan)?
    But I agree to some degree, durable peace in the middle east will require much more than just to stop the violence now, which might be an insolvable task in its self: Israel and Palestina are among the most densely populated countries in the world and both sides still use high birthrates to somehow increase their claim on the land. If family politics in the middle east, especially in Israel and Palestina, don’t change soon and drastically, the problems in about twenty years will dwarf everything that ails the region now. – In such a scenario, killing civillians will make damn good sense. (I didn’t mean ‘good sense’ as morally approvable)

  • LL

    Sorry, no pics, but thanks for the vote of confidence (if that’s what it was). Hee hee…
    I’m not Republican or necessarily conservative. Just sayin’ that just because Republicans call themselves conservative – and thus “liberal” must be bad, which is why they fling the label around so promiscuously, I guess, because none of them knows what “conservative” means – doesn’t make it true. I don’t think starting a war in Iraq or creating a huge new federal entitlement or ignoring the rulings of the US Supreme Court are the actions of conservatives, in the true sense of that word, as opposed to the Bush sense of words (which is to say, whatever he thinks they mean). I don’t know what the hell Republicans are now, but they’re not conservative.
    I think parts of the “conservative” agenda (whatever is left of it that hasn’t been beaten to death in the alley behind the White House) make sense and parts of the “liberal” agenda (like not leaving people to die in flooded New Orleans just because the state and city govt are worthless) make sense.

  • Bugmaster

    On a related side note, I was actually waiting for someone to bring up pacifism the exact way Bugmaster did, i.e. in a false dichotomy of pacifism vs. fighting. Well guess what, noone here is suggesting anything even remotely close to pacifism. … To question some types of conduct in military operations does not constitute opposition to warfare in general.
    Oddly enough, I agree. I was not the one who brought up pacifism — I was merely responding to Steve. I agree with your statement, but I also think that Fred’s slogan — “you are not allowed to kill civilians” — is tantamount to pacifism. I also realize that, later in his post, Fred attempts to reconcile his slogan with reality; however, I think he fails in this due to placing a negligible value on the lives of soldiers.

  • Bugmaster

    Why would you possibly want to find ways to better storm a building and minimize loss of life?
    Hmmmmmm….
    Could it be, say, because you have some moral or ethical framework that says “we should try to minimize loss of life”?
    That’s exactly my point. We already have such an ethical framework. We don’t need to spend years and years researching it, as you seem to suggest. However, ethical frameworks are worthless if they can’t be implemented into action, which brings me to my next point:
    But I mean just what you are saying “let discuss the changing face of warfare, look at the challenges, determine new tactics/strategies to minimize the loss of life, and then use those strategies”. We’ve got have some higher moral/ethical framework to want to do this.
    Why ? What kind of a “higher ethical framework” will tell you how to storm a building more effectively ? That’s like saying, “we need a higher ethical framework to improve welding methods”. Your ethics can help you define your goals, i.e. “kill less people” or “make stronger welding joints”, but it can’t help you in reaching those goals. This is where you stop using ethics, and start using a craft — such as welding or soldiering.
    There is debate about the torture that took place at Abu Graib, but even if higher ups were NOT approving this, the soldiers that took part in these activities were lacking an ethical framework for why torture is wrong (and not just “because it doesn’t work).
    And how would you have fixed this situation ? Give mandatory ethics training to all the soldiers ?

  • cjmr’s husband

    Last I checked, our soldiers did get ethics training. I could be wrong, and certainly don’t know if it is still the case.
    Does anyone here think that giving soldiers ethics training is a bad idea? Why? Honest question, don’t everybody respond with “Yeah, Rumsfeld”.

  • Tongodeon

    You *are* allowed to kill civilians. For example, civilians who are shooting at you.
    Hezbollah are a good example of this. Under the Geneva Conventions you’re either a soldier or a civilian. Since Hezbollah do not distinguish themselves as being combatants, they target civilians, and they are not the Lebanese Army they are not soldiers, they are civilians. And Israel can most certainly kill the civilians who are shooting at it.
    You can also kill civilians if there’s actually a military purpose for the operation and it’s not a pretext. The rule is that you can’t intentionally target civilians, but you can kill civilians in the course of military action. You *can’t* fail to distinguish between civilian and military targets, which it could be argued that Israel is doing. You’re also not allowed to disproportionately kill civilians, which it could also be argued that Israel is doing.
    But you *can* kill civilians, at least according to the Geneva Conventions and international treaties. Perhaps you’re saying that morally, from your perspective, you can’t justify killing civilians yourself.

  • Jesurgislac

    Can’t we all just agree to ignore Scott?
    Beth: Are the American forces soldiers or peacekeepers in Iraq?
    If I ignore Scott, this has got to be the silliest question asked on this thread. American soldiers in Iraq are an invading/occupying army: in no sense of the word are they “peacekeepers”, either in intent or in behavior. If you thought that was even a possibility, you’ve obviously not been reading the news since 2002.
    Bugmaster: but I also think that Fred’s slogan — “you are not allowed to kill civilians” — is tantamount to pacifism. I also realize that, later in his post, Fred attempts to reconcile his slogan with reality; however, I think he fails in this due to placing a negligible value on the lives of soldiers.
    The problem is not, as you claim, that Fred is placing a “negligible value” on the lives of soldiers; the problem is that you are placing a negligible value on the lives of non-American civilians. (I’m guessing, but I’m fairly sure I’m right: your argument of course applies to any army which has decided to kill civilians rather than risk combatants.)

  • Beth

    you’ve obviously not been reading the news since 2002.
    I’m tempted to think the same about you. Apparently no one told you the invasion ended years ago. In recent years, US troops have been fighting insurgents, but also patroling, organizing and training Iraqi police and military, providing security for elections, and generally performing functions that might reasonably be described as peacekeeping. More recently the fighting in Iraq has been shifting from insurgency toward sectarian conflict and it’s looking more and more like American forces are the only thing standing between Iraq and all out civil war.
    It’s too bad I do read the papers. Otherwise, I might have agreed with you.

  • Jeff

    And there is a dilemma for you: is a doctor or a plumber working for Hizballah a legitimate target?
    According to Clerks, yes they are. (The argument in the movie was whether the electricians on the Death Star deserved to be blowed up along with the military personnel. A roofer who happens to be in the convenience store says that construction workers know who their clients are.) I don’t necessarily agree, but there is one (nerdy) opinion.
    We get enraged by the killing of civilians by those whom we are inclined to hate anyway, and shrug when it’s committed by those with whom we tend to identify.
    Not true. I’m mad as hell that a) Clinton didn’t ream the mayor of Philly a new one for the PUSH Move fire and b) that he allowed ATF to take such heat for shooting at a 2 groups of murderers (Ruby Ridge and Waco). I’m even more furious for Welfare “Reform” and “Don’t Ask, Get Kicked Out Anyway”.
    I will not poke the troll. I will not poke the troll. I will not poke the troll.

  • Steve

    You *are* allowed to kill civilians. For example, civilians who are shooting at you.
    Then they’re not civilians, they’re soldiers.

  • Steve

    I’m cross-posting a clarification on both “You’re not allowed to kill civilians” threads:
    I’m been using the terms “soldiers” and “civilians” to mean “combatants” and “non-combatants”. The latter terms would be more accurate. So basically, an assumption driving my posts has been if someone joins the fighting, whether they are wearing a uniform or not, they are not longer a non-combatant (civilian), but a combatant (soldier). Therefore when someone says “what it a civilian shoots at someone” I respond “then they are not a civilian”.

  • Duane

    I’m not Republican or necessarily conservative. Just sayin’ that just because Republicans call themselves conservative – and thus “liberal” must be bad, which is why they fling the label around so promiscuously, I guess, because none of them knows what “conservative” means – doesn’t make it true. I don’t think starting a war in Iraq or creating a huge new federal entitlement or ignoring the rulings of the US Supreme Court are the actions of conservatives, in the true sense of that word, as opposed to the Bush sense of words (which is to say, whatever he thinks they mean). I don’t know what the hell Republicans are now, but they’re not conservative.
    I think parts of the “conservative” agenda (whatever is left of it that hasn’t been beaten to death in the alley behind the White House) make sense and parts of the “liberal” agenda (like not leaving people to die in flooded New Orleans just because the state and city govt are worthless) make sense.
    Conservatism as a political movement continues to fail the world. It’s particular flavor of the moment, neo-conservatism, maintains that all we need to do to fix
    all the problems in the world is kill the right people.
    If you really want to fix the world, you must first put a stake in the heart of conservatism. For some reason, I’m crucified on a rhetorical cross every time some bozo named Ward Churchill has a little too much to drink and says something impolite.
    On the other hand, stalwarts of the conservative movement have free license to demagogue, propagandize, spew hate-filled eliminationist rhetoric and otherwise stink up the joint and the worse thing they will endure is to be labelled “not really a conservative”.
    We are in this world-wide mess right now because we let these jackasses deconstruct liberalism for the last 30 years. So Mr. Corporate Republican can rape a baby during a political debate and folks will simply say, “Yah, but the Democrats are worse!”
    So it really bugs me to see these memes internalized and disseminated by otherwise rational human beings. The Democrats ARE NOT WORSE than the Republicans. There is a whole hell of a lot of difference between the parties. Fight the good fight. The only way to right this ship is to deconstruct conservatism. Don’t let the movement off the hook.

  • feonixrift

    It’s sad to see the soldier/civilian line becoming blurred. After all, it wasn’t created without reason — yes, created. Someone (generic plural) thought it up and implemented it, probably precisely because it *does* keep civilian casualties down. I don’t like what that blurring says about the state of simple human decency.
    The basic definition between combatant and not, imho: Combatants are taking calculated risks to achieve military objectives, non-combatants are trying to keep their heads down. Countering another group’s military objectives with ones of your own requires becoming that risk. Non-combatants (civilians), who did not choose to take that kind of risk and are not willingly assisting those objectives should be left out of it whenever possible.

  • Jesurgislac

    Beth: In recent years, US troops have been fighting insurgents, but also patroling, organizing and training Iraqi police and military, providing security for elections, and generally performing functions that might reasonably be described as peacekeeping.
    In recent years, US troops have been occupying Iraq after conquering it. They have been kidnapping civilians, torturing prisoners, shooting down civilians in the street, and carrying out aerial bombing attacks on civilian areas (commonly known as villages, towns, and cities). If you read the papers, you’d know this. They’re not “peacemakers” – regardless of how they take part in the civil war that they started when they invaded Iraq.

  • Beth

    They’re not “peacemakers”
    I never said they were “peacemakers”. I never even said they were peacekeepers. I simply suggested there could be some difference of opinion in the matter. I suggested that because their current role in some ways corresponds to that of peacekeepers and in other ways to occupiers. Why do you have such a big problem with that?

  • LL

    RE “So it really bugs me to see these memes internalized and disseminated by otherwise rational human beings. The Democrats ARE NOT WORSE than the Republicans”
    Agreed. The Republicans are pretty uniquely horrible. I’m not in love with Democrats, either, but if forced to pick a side, yeah, I’d have to pick Democrats.

  • Bugmaster

    The problem is not, as you claim, that Fred is placing a “negligible value” on the lives of soldiers; the problem is that you are placing a negligible value on the lives of non-American civilians. (I’m guessing, but I’m fairly sure I’m right: your argument of course applies to any army which has decided to kill civilians rather than risk combatants.)
    When did I say that ?
    Why is it that you can only see things in black-and-white, i.e., “civilians are worthless, soldiers are paramount”, or “soldiers are worthless, civilians are paramount” ? Can’t there be a middle ground (or, more likely, dynamically weighted ground) ?

  • Jesurgislac

    Bugmaster, you (and Beth) are arguing consistently all down this thread that it’s perfectly okay to kill civilians if by doing so you save soldiers’ lives.
    I don’t see that as a “middle ground”.

  • Duane

    Bugmaster, you (and Beth) are arguing consistently all down this thread that it’s perfectly okay to kill civilians if by doing so you save soldiers’ lives.
    I don’t see that as a “middle ground”.
    A lot of folks thought that that was a perfectly acceptable way to end WWII so I’m not sure the viewpoint is completely out of the mainstream.

  • Jesurgislac

    A lot of folks thought that that was a perfectly acceptable way to end WWII so I’m not sure the viewpoint is completely out of the mainstream.
    Of course not: the belief that it’s okay to kill foreigners, civilians or not, by as horrible a means as you like, is far older than any Geneva Convention, and is perfectly mainstream. If you had asked the same “lot of folks” whether it would have been acceptable to end WWII by exploding an atomic bomb at the center of Manhattan and the center of Los Angeles, I think you’d get a different set of answers.

  • Steve

    Of course not: the belief that it’s okay to kill foreigners, civilians or not, by as horrible a means as you like, is far older than any Geneva Convention, and is perfectly mainstream. If you had asked the same “lot of folks” whether it would have been acceptable to end WWII by exploding an atomic bomb at the center of Manhattan and the center of Los Angeles, I think you’d get a different set of answers.
    Yes, Jesurgislac, in this country, nationalism always trumps justice, morality, ethics, etc.
    And if you raise these tough issues for debate especially after 9/11 (i.e. are there ways we could have contributed to this hatred…should we try to resolve those root issues?), you are a liberal namby-pamby who thinks we should give into the terrorists.
    Its the Christian viewpoint that we are all sinners*, but its the American “Christian” viewpoint that we’re right and they (whoever THEY are) are always wrong.
    * By acknowledging we are all sinners, that doesn’t mean justice is withheld from those who hurt others/break laws/etc. But we administer justice with a sense of humility and regret…not arrogance.
    P.S. Someone who once met Millard Fuller (founder of Habitat for Humanity) told me this story yesterday…seems to fit here: He was visiting HFH headquarters in Athens, Georgia and had a series of meetings with Fuller. While staying in Athens, he noticed the poverty and racial tensions still alive. He asked Fuller about it, who responded, “There are two things that will get you in trouble in Georgia:
    1. Saying you don’t believe in Jesus Christ.
    2. Or living like you do.”

  • Beth

    Bugmaster, you (and Beth) are arguing consistently all down this thread that it’s perfectly okay to kill civilians if by doing so you save soldiers’ lives.
    I don’t believe Bugmaster has argued that, and I certainly haven’t. In fact, I’ve pretty consistently argued the opposite. Come on, Jesurgislac, stop making shit up.

  • bulbul

    Give mandatory ethics training to all the soldiers ?
    A mighty fine idea, sir!

  • Bugmaster

    Bugmaster, you (and Beth) are arguing consistently all down this thread that it’s perfectly okay to kill civilians if by doing so you save soldiers’ lives.
    Well, if you’re only going to speak in cliches, then here goes:
    Would you sacrifice a million soldiers so that one foreign civilian might live ?

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  • David

    The author is completely wrong. It’s not at all illegal to kill civilians during war. What is illegal is intentionally targeting civilians. The Geneva Conventions make it clear that someone using civilians as shields is not free from being attacked. The attacker must make an effort to minimize civilian casualties, that is all.

  • Jesurgislac

    David, I presume when you say “Geneva Conventions” you’re actually thinking of one specific Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. And if you read this thread, you will find multiple references to that Convention considerably more nuanced than yours.


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