Why Won’t Candidates Run on This Life Issue?

Why Won’t Candidates Run on This Life Issue? October 25, 2012

This week, as part of Election Month at Patheos, the prompt for bloggers is: What are the key issues at stake in this election for people of your tradition?

Well, I suppose I should start by disclaimering that I am not a canon lawyer, and this is not Official Catholic Advice.  But, hey, at least the issue I’m going to talk about is non-partisan.  And that’s the worse part; as the last foreign policy debate showed, callousness to human life, provided it’s that of the enemy (or people living in the same country as the enemy), isn’t even a campaign issue, it’s the new status quo.

During the debate, both Obama and Romney made proud reference to the “crippling sanctions” they supported imposing on Iran.  Crippling is an awfully strong word, and it’s proper object there isn’t really the abstract idea of Iran.  But it would be pretty surprising to hear either candidate rephrase their position as:

“I plan to inflict crippling sanctions on everyday Iranians.  We’re looking to collapse their economy so that they end up in a much worse place than we’ve been during this awful recession.  We’re hoping that mothers will be skipping meals to make sure their kids can eat, that doctors will have to tell their patients that rolling blackouts may abruptly take them off life support, because the generators are being strained to the limit.  We’re hoping that this grinding misery will leave Iranians in despair and that they’ll turn the force of their desolation of the government that did this to them.  By which we obviously mean their own.”

I don’t want to talk consequentialist tactics here or ticking timebomb scenarios.  Whether or not you support sanctions, we have a duty to talk about them without euphemisms.  Our politicians should face up to the enormity of the violence they plan to inflict on others, not puff themselves up by telling us how strong they are, how able and happy they are to make other people destitute or dead.

A more appropriate attitude might be that of a child who has to put down her rabid dog.  It’s an awful act.  It might be the least bad option, but the fact that it occurs at all means that something’s gone profoundly wrong for the dog and is about to for the child.  There’s something in of betrayal; the child ought to be comforting a sick pet in the order of things; just as we ought to be trying to heal and love any other human we come across.  If we don’t label these actions as warped and unnatural when we perform them out of necessity, we might forget the enormity of our transgression.  And, if we do faithfully name them as they are, we might find that fewer of them seem all that necessary.

I led with the Iranian sanctions, because they stood out to me in the debate, probably because they actually got the adjective they deserved, instead of being entirely swaddled in rhetoric.  Of course, the more canonical example for both parties disregard for life is the drone war and the kill list.  These policies have been expanded under Obama and Romney has raised nary a peep in objection.

Again, this is a policy where the United States asserts an authority to assassinate anyone the president and a few other people see as a threat (or standing in proximity to a threat — remember any militant-aged boys are classified as confirmed militants in the casualty reports).  Citizenship and due process are easily waived.

In a discussion about a conscientious objector’s memoir, I made reference to Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, and the disgust and horror inspired by snipers in that war.   We are endorsing an indiscriminate, terrifying way to prosecute a war that is above all inhumane because it leaves the humans in each side of it in isolation.  Death from above robs the killer and their target of the mutual recognition and love that is their natural relationship.  It’s not only murder, it’s murder that fosters a lie.

This is an issue where the Church can speak with a prophetic voice.  Christians have no particular loyalty to the United States or Americans.  We might like the country an awful lot, see its structure and traditions as worth preserving, and we’re certainly bound by duty to follow the law, pay taxes, etc for as long as we plan to retain our citizenship.  But the accident of our birth doesn’t release us from our duty of charity and love toward others, from a need for recognizing the people in the gun sights as ontologically identical to us and the people we love.



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  • Lukas

    Of course, there are candidates who don’t like the drones. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=315E990LdSU

  • Alex Godofsky

    Before we talk about the sanctions we inflict on Iranians specifically – which, as you note, are at least arguably justifiable – why don’t we talk about the completely unjustified sanctions we inflict on the rest of the Third World? Against Iran specifically we just impede the free movement of goods from their country to ours; against the Third World as a whole we impede the free movement of actual people. We condemn tens (hundreds? depending on the timespan you’re looking at) of millions of people to poverty for no good reason.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Are the doors of your home open to homeless people? If they start showing up, will you let them sleep in your loungeroom? Would you dare to impede the free movement of your household objects as they walk out the door never to return, or to one day ask for your loungeroom back, so you can have the luxury of privacy and your own space once again?

      The world isn’t an economic monoculture of civilized individual traders with an ingrained respect for property rights. Crime, disease, and people with values hostile to your own, also take advantage of globalization and open borders. To invite the Third World in, is to invite the Third World’s problems in. Free movement of people between nations is not something that you legislate into existence with utopian disregard for history, consequences, or people’s preferences; it is a highly political act that only makes sense when there is mutual goodwill all around, which usually requires that there is already prosperity on both sides of the border.

      The “Third World” is more likely to solve its own problems through South-South connections.

  • Steve

    You’re being naive, arguably dangerously so. The Iranian sanctions are efforts to stop or at least minimize nuclear proliferation in a volatile part of the world. This presents a far greater threat to the local region, the greater region and us. The point of these sort of sanctions is to apply economic pressure (which is better than military pressure) to force compliance with the international community, whose best interests are all served by limiting the number of nuclear weapons we have. You’re pretending like there are viable alternatives. Our options are economically squeezing a country or running a real world risk of having to estimate the number of vaporized dead in New York to within the nearest 100,000. That’s not a choice. Their actions are necessitating our own.

    “Crippling is an awfully strong word, and it’s proper object there isn’t really the abstract idea of Iran…. Whether or not you support sanctions, we have a duty to talk about them without euphemisms.” Isn’t using ‘crippling’ to describe the effect of the sanctions a good example of a euphemisim-less description? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, but it seems like you’ve provided an example of what you’re looking for in political discussion.

    The drone issue is an example of lesser of two evils. There’s something to be said for discussing the subtle price you pay of limiting yourself to the horrors of war, and I don’t approve of the wide berth of people who are considered hostiles. That being said, I’ve yet to hear a viable alternative beyond putting our collective heads in the sand and pretending bad guys don’t exist.

    “We are endorsing an indiscriminate, terrifying way to prosecute a war that is above all inhumane because it leaves the humans in each side of it in isolation.” Is there a humane way to wage war?

    “Christians have no particular loyalty to the United States or Americans.” Side Note: You probably should if you live here.

    The type of idealism you speak of is foolish and doesn’t have a lot of practical application in the real world. There are genuinely bad people out there who really don’t care who is harmed and certainly don’t care about your hopes for peace, love & understanding.

    • leahlibresco

      There are people doing genuinely bad things, but most of the time they aren’t of a fundamentally different character than I am (exception for Phineas Gage-types). So what I want is for them to be stopped (for the sake of their victims) and healed for their own sake. If I only have the power to do the first, that might be my least bad option, but I can’t lose sight of the fact that I’ve left huge part of the task undone.

      • Steve

        While I don’t know you personally, I’m confident stating that heads of the drug cartels are of a fundamentally different character from you…. As are those who shoot young girls who simply want to go to school… Or those who sell people for sexual slavery… Or those who draft and brainwash children into conflicts… Or leaders who massacre tens of thousands of their own people… Or those who’d willingly increase the risk (or worse) of a nuclear bomb detonating…

        The list goes on. These people aren’t looking for love or redemption. They’re not misunderstood, and in fact quite the opposite, they’re clear in their intentions. I understand the position of trying to save people from a Christian/Catholic POV. While there are those whose hearts & minds can be won, and I strongly support such efforts, I question the effectiveness of this blanket idealism applied to the real world. You’re a Harry Potter fan. Voldemort was simply beyond any sort of rescuing and redemption in the manner you speak of. There are many Voldemorts out there and they’re defeated by people who stand up and oppose them, not those looking to heal them.

        • But to Leah’s point, these people aren’t ontologically distinct from us- particularly from an atheist viewpoint. That is to say, if you were born in the same environment that they were, it’s not clear that you would have ended up any different than them. Where you might call them evil, I suspect Leah would call them confused. It is true that these people must be stopped- even, I would certainly argue, to the point of killing them if we must- but it’s not obvious that they’re fundamentally different from us.

          • Steve

            If someone has a machette, a machine gun or a nuclear weapon, I have little interest in spending time splitting hairs between ‘confused’ & ‘evil’. I can support efforts to win hearts & minds and efforts to reason with one another as best we can, but I also accept that some people and groups are beyond saving or reasoning with.

        • Andres Riofrio

          This is great. 😀 Come on! Even Harry Potter kept in mind his obligation to try to heal Voldemort:

          Harry Potter: “Yeah it did, you’re right. But before you try and kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done…. Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle….”
          Voldemort: “What is this?”
          Harry Potter: “It’s your one last chance, it’s all you’ve got left…. I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise…. Be a man…. try…. Try for some remorse….”

          He tried.

          • Steve

            … and ultimately he killed him. He (Voldemort) was beyond reasoning. He was beyond be saving or redeeming. There was never going to be a common ground to be reached.

        • Karen

          No, they are not of a different nature. If you were in their shoes, you would do similar things, as would I and everyone else I know. You might not be as bad or you might be much , much worse. The simple fact that you can so easily dismiss Those People as irreconcilably different means you taken the first step in their direction — making them the Other. They have done terrible things and need to be stopped for the sake of their victories and themselves, but we do this not because we’re immune from their disease but because we hope someone will do the same for us if necessary.

      • I agree with everything you said here, but I don’t think your conclusions in the OP follow. Fundamentally, I want our politicians to take the right consequentialist actions. If you can demonstrate that drone strikes or economic sanctions are a losing strategy (either for America or for Humanity), that’s one thing (deiseach is making an effort below), but if you want us to feel bad when we make the optimal choice between two crappy options, I’m not convinced. I don’t want our politicians to be emotionally motivated, particularly on macro-level decisions.

        This seems analogous to America’s policy “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Whenever a terrorist has your feet over the fire, it feels awful to not negotiate with them (We could spend hours listing all the movies giving us good examples). But this policy is set because it’s the optimal long term strategy for dealing with terrorism, and for it to work, it must be executed without emotion, even- especially -when we don’t want to. There’s valid discussion to be had about whether our current strategies are actually optimal, but I fundamentally disagree that we should try to make ourselves feel worse about executing the optimal strategy.

        • But this discussion is not about whether we should “feel bad”; it’s about how the existing political rhetoric is dehumanizing Iranians and anyone else the United States considers an enemy. Dehumanizing language is the problem, because it at best masks whatever infrahumanization is currently going on and at worst promotes further infrahumanization. And there’s loads of psychological studies that show that infrahumanization changes how we make decisions. (I can’t cite any, but I bet Beck’s Unclean would have lots of such citations.) How we feel about our actions is an indicator of our attitude, which means we should pay attention to them, but they aren’t the problem.

          • In the last sentence, them=feelings. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

          • I think the word “dehumanize” is underspecified here. Do you mean “value their lives less than I value other strangers lives”, or do you mean “reducing humans to numbers in an equation to be optimized”? I agree that the first is a problem, but I’m all for the second.

            Here’s the thing- I don’t want political leaders making decisions with their moral intuitions. As you say, our moral intuitions are very badly suited to this kind of problem- we value the lives of those close to us, those that look like us, those that talk like us, much higher than we value the lives of “outsiders”. Talking in clinical terms about number of lives lost vs. number of lives saved is the only rational (sane) way to approach this problem.

            No matter what our leaders do, people are going to get hurt. I would rather have an honest discussion about what exactly we’re trying to optimize for, and that means figuring out a way to bypass the queasiness we get when we start talking about innocent people getting killed in drone attacks. I’m definitely not advocating that we forget the people on the other end are people, but I am saying that dwelling on that point- and not recognizing that our actions are deliberately planned as a strategy to save other people– is going to leave us making non-optimal decisions, because killing one person today to save ten people tomorrow is hard

          • Dehumanizing enemies means thinking of them as less than humans; so, you could say, if we think of all humans as numbers, including ourselves, I don’t think that thinking of our enemies as numbers is dehumanizing. At least, in this comment thread I do not mean to say that calculating this out mathematico-consequentially is dehumanizing, though I can see why you would think I might. Partway through the post I switch to infrahumanization because I started talking about psychology rather than language (and in psych it’s conventionally infra- while in language-y studies it’s conventionally de-, in my experience). Infrahumanization is a more-specifically-defined phenomenon, meaning that we attribute less-than-human emotions and motives, and therefore less-than-human worth, to other humans. If it helps, think of (my use of) dehumanization as “infrahumanization-as-expressed-in-discourse.”
            So, while I agree with most of your response, I don’t really agree with all of the final paragraph, because I think that the language we use to talk about things does change how we value those things (both immediately and over time in a character-formation kind of way), and so we need to be careful that our language does a good job of representing the kind of values we want to have. I don’t think current political rhetoric, which values American citizens (well, particular citizens) much differently than other kinds of citizens, will support an optimal decision according to what we want our values to be. That is, “innocent Iranians civilians will die” must be a part of American political language, queasiness notwithstanding, particularly if American politicians use the rhetorical of innocent American civilians in their justifications for war.

    • deiseach

      In other words, “Yes, we’re going to deal with people who hate us by giving them concrete reasons to hate us!” Come on, this is not about addressing the situation in the Middle East, it’s about the election year. It’s in the same vein as New Labour discovering they could get votes by slogans about “Being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” from middle-class people worried about news stories about burglaries and robbery increasing drastically.

      What’s even worse is the idea of “kill lists” and agencies such as the CIA agitating for having more drones under their own control. Doesn’t anyone think that reports (whether exaggerated or not) of civilians being killed as acceptable collateral losses during a strike on a reported location of an Al-Quaeda leader are going to influence young men, who might never have thought of supporting or joining up, into doing so?

      Talk about not learning from history – these kinds of “showing the natives who’s boss” demonstrations have a bad tendency to come back and bite the perpretrators in the backside. From the history of my own country, Bloody Sunday in the 70s in Northern Ireland happened because the British commanding officer, amongst other things, wanted to make a stand and show the IRA and the locals who was in charge by teaching a lesson. What resulted was the most effective recruiting campaign for the IRA that could have been devised. Before that, the IRA was chiefly the province of a few old stagers from the 50s and some extremists who were trying to bring about the Marxist-Leninist revolution. Afterwards, they were seen as legitimate representatives of the people who were taking up arms to protect them. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down in response to this; I can’t over-emphasise the sheer level of fury it engendered in Ireland.

      Even further back, the 1916 Rising was a spectacular failure and when the surrendered rebels were marched through the streets of Dublin, they were pelted with rotten vegetables and jeered at by the ordinary people (many of whom had family members serving in the British Army during the First World War at the time). That attitude changed with the series of executions of the leaders of the Rising and some others; although warned that this would create martyrs, and that simply imprisoning them and letting them be forgotten would be more effective, General Maxwell (acting as military governor with plenary powers under martial law) insisted on the executions, and the mood of the populace changed: the effect of the series of fifteen executions, one after another over ten days, was described as follows:

      “The Unionist journalist Warren B Wells, in a letter called An Irish Apologia, tried to explain to the British people, and the world, the grave error of Maxwell’s action.

      “I am not asking you to regard the executions of the rebel leaders, the sentences of penal servitude, the deportations, announced badly day after day without publication of the evidence which justified the infliction of the capital penalty, from behind the closed doors of Field Court-Martial, from the point of view of their justice, or even of their expediency. I am simply inviting you to endeavour to understand their effect on that Irish public which read of them ‘with something of the feeling of helpless rage with which one would watch a stream of blood dripping from under a closed door”.

      A stream of blood dripping from under a closed door. Do you really think equivalent American policies are going to win hearts and minds, or are they rather about winning votes?

      • Steve

        I’m not ignoring saber rattling in an election year, and if actions to limit Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons were only taken within, say, the last 3 months, then I’d agree that this could be probably be chalked up to simple political theater & nothing more. This of course isn’t the case, as these efforts have been ongoing for over a decade now. Perhaps they get more air time in an election season (they certainly did & the foreign policy debate) because nuclear proliferation is a sexier issue to talk about than others, but that changes nothing.

        Having a continuing discussion about when to wage war is important, and of course civilian casualties should always be limited. It takes a strong stomach to go after bad people. If I thought the military wasn’t taking every possible precaution to limit such things I might be more sympathetic to your pleas. I’m also not dismissing the real possibility of creating a new generation of angry people through our efforts, which is why winning hearts & minds is just as important as any victory you’ll get with a gun. ‘Speak softly & carry a big stick’ is often a good real world policy.

        While we can and should learn from history, it’s also important to realize that there are fundamental differences in each of these scenarios, making direct comparisons tenuous. Different situations call for different actions.

        The rhetoric might win votes. Our actions might win both.

      • TerryC

        Its certain that there’s a certain amount of politics to any statement by a politician in a political season, however these people do not hate us because of what we have done, at least not because of what we have done to them. They hate us because of who we are. That is because we allow immoral and sinful behavior free rein. I could just as easily say “what they consider immoral and sinful behavior” though I agree with most of them on the “sinful” and “immoral” part, though I don’t agree with their solution.
        They hate use because we are not of their religion. They hate use because we allow free speech. They hate us because we tolerate atheism, and allow forums like this one which allow atheists and Christians to discuss their beliefs, rather than issuing fatwā against them. And they hate use because we are rich (compared to them) and successful in our endeavors (compared to them),
        All that being said, I agree that as a society we need to be more honest about our actions. Sanctions are an act of war. They are a slow and fairly bloodless form of war compared to saturation bombing or drone attacks, but they are a form of warfare. That being the case they have all of the downsides of warfare. they are a method of imposing one’s will on another through force. They are not meant to be pleasant. They are indeed meant to either incite the populous against their leaders in a bid to cause a revolt at the extreme or at least pressure the leadership to capitulate. Like all forms of warfare they are not meant to make friends, they are meant to create an outcome which is preferable to the country which has set them.
        They are not actions aimed at “changing hearts & minds”. Bush tried that and we know how well that went. They are actions meant in this case to prevent what might be an irrational actor from attaining nuclear weapons, passing them on to non-nation state actors, or actually using them. A nuclear Iran will almost certainly result in more states i the Middle East joining the nuclear club, a bad thing in a world that already has too many nuclear weapons.

    • Iota


      Whenever I hear proponents of tough Realpolitik criticize other for being naïve I smile a little.

      I admit upfront I have no experience in international relations nor have I lived in this world all that long, so maybe you have superior experience. On the other hand, I live in a country that has not enjoyed the benefits of largely being splendidly isolated from everyone else (the last conflict that was actually fought on US soli was the Civil War) but one that has actually been occupied and annexed, for a significant amount of time. So I have a general mistrust of the opinion that waging a more or less open war on other people’s land is a good idea (i.e. conducive to peace).

      I’d appreciate your take on the following:
      “The point of these sort of sanctions is to apply economic pressure (which is better than military pressure) to force compliance with the international community”
      That may well be the stated or even intended goal. But:
      – We both know that people under pressure may cave in but they may also retaliate. What corroborating evidence do you have for the fact that pressure applied to Iranian civilians will make them more likely to cooperate than to retaliate?
      – The basic assumption (that you can force a government do to things by affecting civilian populace) holds only so long as the government cares about the populace. In a totalitarian state, for example, the elites will attempt to reach their stated goals even at the expense of the populace. And while you can make a case for the populace eventually overthrowing the government, I am not sure why the populace should then willingly cooperate with the “international community” which they may see as silently abetting (or even causing) their misfortune. I’m not up to dare on Iranian politics but I think you could make a case that Iran has totalitarian tendencies.
      – The “international community” does not (perhaps sadly) consist of Northern America and Europe. I’d assume there are states who would be willing to “help” Iran in the name of some sort of Islamic brotherhood or common anti-American tendencies.
      – Given what little I know about post Iranian politics (mainly thanks to the book “Shah of Shahs” (which I hereby recommend), I’d assume Iranians have reasons to be anti-American by default, which may (or may not) affect the general sentiment of the Iranian populace.

      Now, I’m not American. I know very little about the actual restrictions placed by the US on Iran. The question I want to pose is a little more general in scope: what makes you think that the kind of politics will work? The alternative IS that you could have a nuclear state anyway, just with the populace being either desperate or seething angry at the US (and consequently possibly more open to being persuaded to fantasies of military might). What makes you think that alternative won’t come to pass?

      • Steve

        I’m afraid my experiences are limited to what I’ve read (though fairly well read) and can’t speak from first hand experiences in the military or in dealing directly on matters of foreign policy. I also don’t think waging a more or less open war on other peoples land (or our own for that matter) is a good policy. I’m not entirely sure why you’d think I’m proposing that, but to be clear, that’s a bad idea.

        “We both know that people under pressure may cave in but they may also retaliate. What corroborating evidence do you have for the fact that pressure applied to Iranian civilians will make them more likely to cooperate than to retaliate?”
        First, the sanctions are aimed at the Iranian government rather than their civilians. While civilians might bear the cost of such sanctions, the unrest generated should apply additional pressure to comply with international demands. Sanctions are meant to apply pressure rather than cause death. A direct military retaliation would be unlikely as that’s not a battle they’d win. Bear in mind, these efforts aren’t being done because the Iranians simply don’t like us. It’s because they have shown in the past that they’re willing to arm people who have no problems detonating bombs blindly in public places. These are not the type of people who we want with nuclear capabilities.

        “The basic assumption (that you can force a government do to things by affecting civilian populace) holds only so long as the government cares about the populace. In a totalitarian state, for example, the elites will attempt to reach their stated goals even at the expense of the populace. And while you can make a case for the populace eventually overthrowing the government, I am not sure why the populace should then willingly cooperate with the “international community” which they may see as silently abetting (or even causing) their misfortune.”
        If you’re looking for a sure thing with regards to a proper course of action, I certainly can’t offer one. Creating unrest applies pressure and alters the status quo. The status quo is they’re trying to make a nuclear bomb. They have, can & will make efforts to put that bomb into the hands of people crazy enough to detonate it. That’s not a situation we can simply ignore. I’m open to suggestions on a better course of action.

        “The “international community” does not (perhaps sadly) consist of Northern America and Europe. I’d assume there are states who would be willing to “help” Iran in the name of some sort of Islamic brotherhood or common anti-American tendencies.”
        While the international community isn’t just north america & europe from a number of countries point of view, from an the economic & military point of view there are really only a small handful of countries in the world worth including on a list of players in the larger game. We spend more on our military that then next 15 countries combined. From a GDP perspective the top 5 countries produce about as much as the next 180 countries combined. In addition, the middle east is made up of many countries and groups within each country that really don’t like each other. It’s not simply a case of Muslims vs. Jews or Muslims vs. the West. It’s a remarkably complex set of interests that are balanced (or unbalanced). There’s little shortage of anti-american sentiment in many of these countries, though that doesn’t mean theres any love lost with the Iranians.

        “what makes you think that the kind of politics will work?”
        There’s no guarantee of anything. Pressuring them economically to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a volatile region (as simply asking them to stop hasn’t really worked) seems a prudent course of action. I’m sure American & other world leaders would like a better more effective alternative than direct military action. I’ve yet to hear one.

        “The alternative IS that you could have a nuclear state anyway, just with the populace being either desperate or seething angry at the US (and consequently possibly more open to being persuaded to fantasies of military might). What makes you think that alternative won’t come to pass?”
        You’d have a tough time convincing me that the best course of action in the face of nuclear proliferation in that region is to sit on our hands. I’m open to suggestion.

        • Iota

          “I’m not entirely sure why you’d think I’m proposing that”

          Any interference with another country’s situation that causes widespread chaos (violently “disrupts the status-quo”) could be seen as a type of covert aggression. It’s not technically war, but some of the effects are similar, including loss of life and, therefore, the argument that it wasn’t *meant* to make people die of hunger (for example, if the sanctions provoke a humanitarian crisis) isn’t an impressive line of argument.

          “I’m open to suggestion.”
          No one has to agree with me, obviously, but here’s how I see it as an outside (Western, Catholic) observer: the US interventions in that region have often made things worse in the long term, for the US. Given that fact, I would at least think REALLY hard before backing any swiping intervention measures, even if you don’t care a whit for Catholic social teaching (as I assume you don’t).

          In Iran’s case specifically (AFAIK, all referenced data to the contrary are welcome):
          – The US backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (who created a pretty totalitarian government)
          – The US proceeded to give Iran (under the Shah) assistance with peaceful applications of atomic technologies (the nuclear program that began then ended up morphing into the military program now).
          – Mohammad Mosaddegh (a member of Shah’s government in the 50’s, apparently quite popular with the people) was deposed in a coup, and the coup was backed by the CIA (as far as I understand this is legit history, not a conspiracy theory).
          – The people eventually turned to Islamic authorities as a source of resistance to the Shah – this is where you got Khomeini. This eventually resulted in the establishment of an Islamic republic.
          – Islamic republics are pretty dangerous, in principle.

          In other words, the US (and “the international community” to the extent it supported US ideas), already has a track record of interventions that turn pretty nasty later. If it weren’t too strong a statement, I’d even say that in a certain sense we are now getting what we deserve in return (quid pro quo).

          Disarming that threat by waving a “big stick” theoretically might work, but from what I understand of history beating other people up (economically, politically or militarily) works only if: (a) they somehow have no desire for self-government and are fine with being dominated [disputable here], (b) you totally annihilate them [morally bad idea] (c) you successfully assimilate them completely by long, total, but not overbearing occupation [impossible, unless the US really wants to have colonies…] or (d) you keep being the biggest guy around [this is precisely why various regimes want nuclear military power – to threaten globally important countries they don’t like]

          Given that, I’d go for a mixture of soft support for the opposition, really “surgical” sanctions and restrictions to such industries as can actually be directly linked to a military nuclear program, and soft power (i.e. making the general populace less likely to actually listen to Islamists). While this does not exactly literally stop Islamists from wanting a nuclear warhead, the less support they have the less likely they are going to get it.

          The problem with this proposal is that once you beat people up with a big stick, they are much less likely to listen to your soft speech. But even given that, beating them up so that you can hopefully speak to them softly later, when they are on the floor is – in my humble but decided opinion – not a very “prudent” course of action. Especially since this is exactly what, according to some military doctrines as I understand them, having nuclear warheads is supposed to be a protection against – being manhandled by other, generally more powerful countries. If so then in consequnce manhandling such countries when you aren’t planing to establish a colony there is actually incentivizing the governments and militant groups to want the one weapon that slightly levels the playing field.

    • Drones strikes are probably the lesser of these two particular evils, but that isn’t saying much. For more about Iran’s sanctions, check out Glenn Greenwald:


  • “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

    (this seemed like the best pull quote, but anyone who hasn’t should really read the whole thing: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm)

    • Iota


      A thumbs-up for the Orwell reference.

  • kenneth

    To get at this disparity, you have to understand the distinctions of neo-conservative “pro-life” philosophy. When they say life is sacred, they mean, you know, “real people” like fetuses and CEOs. Seriously Inconvenient Brown People (domestic or foreign, but especially foreign), don’t count in that calculus. As long as you feel justified in the need to kill them, it’s really no different than spraying for fire ants at the condo complex you manage. It’s even ok to get some innocent women and little kids in the “overspray” as long as you didn’t primarily mean to target them and so long as you got some of the bad guys as well.

    • Irenist

      kenneth, I think you diagnosis of a certain kind of “pro-life” conservative politics is depressingly accurate. I guess the question for Leah’s atheist readers is then this: To continue to disagree with Leah about religion generally while backing her efforts to help fashion a “pro-life” discourse for her co-religionists that repudiates the politics you’ve described, or to assume that the very “pro-life” religious worldview itself is irredeemable and focus efforts on arguing against it in all its forms, however (like Leah’s) otherwise congenial. For an atheist, I can imagine that both positions would have a certain honorableness and logic. As a Catholic, I hope most here will choose the former!

    • TerryC

      Keep preaching that left wing propaganda.
      neo-cons are racist. They want dirty air, dirty water. Push grandma off the cliff.
      You have just shown your own colors.
      I actually believe that neo-cons are marked be a habit of being too unrealistically caring about the people of other countries. They want them to experience the benefits of the system they has existed in the United States for the last half century or so. That is political freedom, economic success and personal happiness. Because they want this so much they are unrealistic in their assessment of the preparation of these people for the responsibilities that such a government requires. The decline of the United States in the present is a result of Americans forgetting about those same responsibilities. Those responsibilities include actually paying attention to political events. Expecting a certain amount of moral character in people selected for leadership and taking action when they don’t live up to the requirement, rather than selecting them based on what tribe or race or economic group they come from. Selecting them based on the moral judgments they have made in the past. Do they endorse killing the weak, the old, the other?
      In short neo-cons don’t support war in other nations because they hate the people who live there or because they think less of them. They endorse it because it bothers them that those people are being exploited by their own countrymen or neighbors. They’re wrong because they don’t see that these people can’t be saved from themselves and their own inability to do what’s necessary to maintain a democratic government.

      • savvy

        “I actually believe that neo-cons are marked be a habit of being too unrealistically caring about the people of other countries. They want them to experience the benefits of the system they has existed in the United States for the last half century or so. That is political freedom, economic success and personal happiness.”

        This might be true, and the left keeps yelling, “do not impose your values on other people” except when it’s their values of free sex on cultures that do not want it.

  • Jacob

    Amen! Preach it!!!!

  • Ted Seeber

    I am very much of the opinion that the Church needs to *seriously* contemplate a “reformation” of just war principles to those of St. Augustine, rather than St. Thomas Aquinas. In the War on Terror it has become painfully clear what should have been clear with WWI- weapons have advanced to the point that the horrific collateral damage of any given invasion makes the invasion itself unjust, and the war that contains such unjust tactics also unjust, regardless of original intent.

    Yes, that means that this war has made me come to the conclusion that the French had the moral tactics against the Germans- and that the only thing wrong with the Maginot Line was that it was incomplete and the French were battling a numerically superior force.

    But it occurs to me that a moral use of drones would be to create automated borders through which only friends carrying appropriate RFID transponders could pass. Of course, such a use would require:
    1. Setting aside land ahead of time for the battlefield
    2. Posting warnings at the perimeter in all reasonable languages
    3. Absolute control over who gets transponders or is trusted to run vehicles through with appropriate transponders.
    4. Keeping one’s own population away from the designated battlefields
    5. COMPLETE borders made out of battlefields, no running around the line like the Germans did at the Maginot line

    • Ted Seeber

      I should add 6.: The time of thinking of borders as being merely lines on the map is long gone. The modern useful perimeter is three dimensional, wide, thick, and tall. It includes digging down to a mile under the earth and 7 miles deep at sea; as well as upwards into near earth orbit and beyond.

  • Irenist

    Perusal of Catholic analytic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s condemnations of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might advance the discussion, since many of the same issues (e.g., killing civilians abroad to protect Americans from further carnage) are present as in drone strikes.

    Her stringent definition of the principle of double effect as applied to just war is usefully excerpted here:

    Her pamphlet condemning pacifism as “a false doctrine” while also condemning President Truman’s decision to annihilate those two cities by noting that “Choosing to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder” is available in full at:

    • David J. White

      The problem with pointing to the use of the atomic bomb in WWII as the crossing of some kind of moral threshold is that by the time the atomic bomb became available, the moral line had already been crossed. In the context of 1945, the atomic bomb was merely a means of doing with a single bomb what the Allies had already been doing with lots of little bombs — incinerating cities, such as Tokyo and Dresden. It would have been strange for Pres. Truman not to approve of the use of the atomic bomb, given that the Allies had already decided to incinerate cities in prosecuting the war. By Aug. of 1945, the use of the atomic bomb was a technological novelty, not a moral one.

      • Irenist

        I agree with you that the incineration of Dresden, and like horrors, were also immoral. I think Anscombe’s logic would be as useful as criticizing those as it would be in criticizing either atomic bombings or drone warfare: the essential point is that “to kill the innocent as a means to your ends is always murder.”

  • I agree entirely that people should be aware of what’s being done when talk of ‘sanctions’ comes up. There needs to be awareness to just what is done when measures like those are undertaken – I wonder if most people don’t think economic sanctions mostly add up to ‘it’s hard to get a Playstation 3’.

    I also agree with the ‘stopping them for their own sake’ view. Pope John Paul II’s talk of the culture of death took a while to be understood by me, but now I’m in the position of regarding death as an act of last resort or an act of justice, not ‘a solution’, when it comes to human beings behaving immorally, or ‘solving problems’ in general.

  • David

    This is why I’m voting for Jill Stein. And I encourage everyone else who feels this way to do so too (or Gary Johnson if you insist on being an economic conservative).
    One thing worth pointing out on the Iran issue in particular is that the main reason Iran (probably) wants a nuclear weapon is that the United States has made it very clear that having a nuclear weapon is the best way to ensure that it doesn’t attack a country it considers an enemy. When George Bush announced his “Axis of Evil” it had three countries. One, Iraq, had no nuclear weapons and not even a nuclear weapons program. It was invaded and its government overthrown. One, North Korea had a nuclear weapons program, and rather quickly succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. Nobody ever talks of invading North Korea; or even suggests that a lesser sort of military attack would be a good idea. The third member was Iran. Why it wants nuclear weapons seems clear; if I were in charge of Iran, I’d want them too, and as quickly as possible.

    That brings us to the next point, which is that there is no real reason to believe that if Iran had nuclear weapons it would have any interest in using them preemptively. Iran’s leaders aren’t stupid; they know that using a nuclear weapon would result in a massive attack on their country that would result in them losing power, and almost certainly being killed. Some suggest that Iran would get around this by passing nuclear weapons to terrorists. But that makes scarcely any more sense; the chances of being found out would be extremely high, with the same consequences as a direct attack.

    In short, Iran’s leadership has a clear and reasonable motive for wanting nuclear weapons, and the dire risks some people (including most of the American leadership) like to suggest would accompany Iran developing such weapons are little more than fantasies, like what Steve’s ridiculous story from above, “Our options are economically squeezing a country or running a real world risk of having to estimate the number of vaporized dead in New York to within the nearest 100,000. ” (That story is particularly ridiculous, because even if Iran went entirely out of its senses, it has no way of delivering a nuclear weapon capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people to an American city).

    That said, nuclear proliferation is obviously a bad thing, though how bad our leaders seem to think it is entirely depends on who is doing the proliferating; nobody ever suggested attacks on India or Israel to prevent them from developing nukes. But if we want to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the best way is to remove the incentives for them to do so; that is, stop our violent and aggressive policies in the Middle East.

    Drones are also evil, but I think I’ve written enough for one comment.

    • Ted Seeber

      What if you’re truly pro-life?

      My answer was Will Christensen, but he’s only on the ballot in Oregon (where the Constitutional Party apparently thinks that Virgil Goode, isn’t very good).