David R. Henderson  

One Innocent Person is Killed. Response: Kill More Innocent People

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Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, better known as Instapundit, writes:

The response to Foley's beheading should have been a MOAB dropped on an ISIS-held town.

For those of you who don't know, a MOAB is a "Massive Ordnance Air Blast," aka "The Mother of All Bombs." Here's how Wikipedia describes it:
The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB pronounced /ˈmoʊ.æb/, commonly known as the Mother of All Bombs) is a large-yield conventional (non-nuclear) bomb, developed for the United States military by Albert L. Weimorts, Jr. of the Air Force Research Laboratory. At the time of development, it was touted as the most powerful non-nuclear weapon ever designed.

One innocent man is killed and Reynolds advocates retaliating not just by killing many of the bad guys but by killing all of the people in a town that the bad guys hold.

Reynolds is generally good at upholding standards of Western civilization, but his post reminds me of the quip attributed (probably incorrectly) to Mohandas Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."


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CATEGORIES: moral reasoning



COMMENTS (57 to date)
Rboggs writes:

So what is your recommendation for the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq ?They are also being beheaded.

KSH writes:

I recall Bryan did a post about this topic a while back. It is a deadly cycle of revenge...I would like to get off please. As a resident of DC and a native of NYC, I increasingly fear for my family and friends. Perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize winner could step up and make the unpopular choice for de-escalation.

Tom West writes:

I understand the impulse to massively want to "see them pay" in response to some outrage.

I *don't* understand committing that momentary sentiment to the public eye.

I had thought the acceptability of wiping out a town or village in reprisal for a single killing had become somewhat tarnished by its association with a previous regime.

vikingvista writes:

If killing innocent hostages along with their murderous kidnappers is such a good idea as Glen "Dresden" Reynolds claims, then the US shares fault in Foley's beheading, since knowing his approximate location (enough for a rescue attempt), the US could've dropped a MOAB on him and didn't.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Rboggs,
So what is your recommendation for the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq ?They are also being beheaded.
Even if I didn’t have a good solution, that shouldn’t prevent me, or you, from criticizing really bad solutions. Remember that the impetus for this proposal is Glenn Reynolds’s justified outrage against the murder of an innocent. He should not forget that outrage, or the basis for it, in judging solutions. He apparently did.
I do have one possible solution, though: announce to them that they will be let in to the United States forever.
@Tom West,
I understand the impulse to massively want to "see them pay" in response to some outrage.
Ditto.
I *don't* understand committing that momentary sentiment to the public eye.
Ditto. I wonder if he already regrets it.
I had thought the acceptability of wiping out a town or village in reprisal for a single killing had become somewhat tarnished by its association with a previous regime.
Well put.

konshtok writes:

it's called "war" and y'all should be more familiar with the concept

vikingvista writes:

rboggs,

Glen Reynold's recommendation would be to drop a MOAB on those Christians. Do you think in absence of another recommendation that is how the US should proceed?

However, there are many people in this country claiming that the lives of those and other innocent victims are hugely important to them. Perhaps raising money to ransom them would help. That is a policy that the US government uses on nonterrorist domestic kidnappers, in part because it makes it easier to apprehend the kidnappers once separated from the hostages. Given the cost of any intervention, I doubt this expence of separating ISIS from its still living victims would be financially significant.

Don Boudreaux writes:

konshtok:

It is precisely because David is so very familiar with the concept "war" that he writes as eloquently and as humanely as he does on this topic - refusing to accept without questioning the habit of lumping people into groups and assuming that those groups are themselves unified, sentient actors.

Granite26 writes:

Just to play a little (literal) devil's advocate, but can you really say that anyone left alive in an ISIS controlled town is innocent at this point?

rowbigred26 writes:

@Granite26

At least 1 person is, Steven Sotloff, the other journalist held captive. I'd wager a bet that there are more hostages than just him too.

Nick writes:
I *don't* understand committing that momentary sentiment to the public eye.
A certain amount of strategic uncertainty can be valuable in many long run competitive situations. For example, a labor union will threaten to go on strike (even though it might be more damaging than accepting whatever management is offering) because if it always acts rationally, management will be able to offer just slightly more than the employees could obtain elsewhere and the union will accept it. Unfortunately, for the strategy to work, the union has to actually be willing to strike or else management will always call their bluff.

Similarly, there is something to be said for threatening war. Making threats to take self-defeating actions (and sometimes following through on them) can yield better results in the long run.

Note that this might also explain some of the Krugman article posted earlier. Any particular war, like any particular union work stoppage, probably leaves the participants worse off than if it had not happened. But over the long run, the threat of a work stoppage gives the union more leverage and it might get enough gains in other negotiating sessions to outweigh the losses from the times it has to go on strike. Maybe threatening war works the same way - a credible threat to take destructive actions can lead to a better negotiated settlement for the belligerent in other disputes that do not result in a war.

Granite26 writes:

So it's what... let us kill more innocent people or we'll kill the innocent people we've got in reserve?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Granite26,
Just to play a little (literal) devil's advocate, but can you really say that anyone left alive in an ISIS controlled town is innocent at this point?
rowbigred26 answered your question well, but beyond that, yes, I would bet that there are scores of innocent people left alive. How many children under age 10, for example, do you think there would be in such a village?
@Don Boudreaux,
It is precisely because David is so very familiar with the concept "war" that he writes as eloquently and as humanely as he does on this topic - refusing to accept without questioning the habit of lumping people into groups and assuming that those groups are themselves unified, sentient actors.
Thanks.
@konshtok,
it's called "war" and y'all should be more familiar with the concept
Actually, I’m pretty familiar with the concept. I’ve been teaching warriors for 30 years and have written about it a lot. BTW, konshtok, I think that if the ISIS people spoke English with a southern drawl, they would, in addressing the issue of the innocent journalist killed, answer Glenn Reynolds’s outrage about the way you did. And it would not be to their credit.

Jeff writes:

I think Reynolds' sentiment is a product of the idea, conscious or unconscious, that strong retaliation for acts of aggression and brutality committed against you and your friends can deter future acts of aggression and brutality. Raise the expected costs of violent acts committed against a set group of people, and you get fewer of them.

The downside, of course, is, as someone mentioned that this can also backfire and lead to a destructive cycle of vendettas, increasing rather than decreasing the level of violence.

What I wonder about is this: I think Reynolds' sentiment is a perfectly natural response. Given that humans underwent a long period in their evolutionary history of group selection, the fact that this yearning for bloody revenge comes so natural, even to a smart, educated, thoroughly civilized chap like Mr. Reynolds, kinda suggests, thanks to natural selection, that it's effective. But we also see nasty, bloody, generations-long conflicts between tribal peoples, as well as, to a lesser extent, modern states such as in Europe from say the 1500's to the mid 1900's, which gives credence to Bryan's views.

Perhaps there is a set of criteria that would help you figure out when the Reynolds' plan will provide successful future deterence of aggression vs. a protracted bloody conflict.

NZ writes:

I don't know about this specific case, but there are a few other things to consider when dealing with situations like this:

1. Muslim nations are very much honor based. They plan, act, and respond to events within the framework of honor and shame.

2. It is always more honorable--not just for Muslims but for anyone--to be defeated by an adversary that is truly, undeniably superior.

3. It is especially shameful to be defeated by an adversary who is militarily superior but wears oven mitts during the conflict, and then turns around afterwards and apologizes for their victory. The only way to overcome this shame is to continue to fight, and in this case, there is no shame in fighting dirty.

So, is it wrong to respond to one murder by destroying an entire town? Probably yes, in most cases. But if that murder is part of a larger conflict in which the murderer(s?) comes from an honor culture, I am contending that such a response may, in some cases, actually be the most honorable thing to do, and may do the most to contribute towards ending that larger conflict permanently.

KSH writes:

@Granite26

Just to play a little (literal) devil's advocate, but can you really say that anyone left alive in an ISIS controlled town is innocent at this point?

Bryan's post from a while back:
Collective Guilt

And also a well articulated post from mises.ca here. I particularly enjoyed the following quote:

I shared an elevator with Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. Well-respected as a foreign policy analyst with high-ranking connections, Lake is one of the biggest agitators for war in the media. Seeing him up close was quite a revelation. Clad in nicely-fitted dress clothes, I was struck by Lake’s protruding belly. It was reminiscent of when I ran into Bill Kristol months before in the same elevator. Same clothes, same overweight figure.
These men have the benefit of filling their gullets at rubber chicken dinners while begging for death and destruction across the globe. They don’t don military garb, pick up AR-15s and take care of business themselves. They would rather stare into a television camera and make the case for other people’s children to go off and die in war.
Is this really human progress? Have we reached the pinnacle of human existence where men can live comfortably cheerleading for mass murder?

Carl writes:

War is a form of diplomacy. A retaliatory strike would therefore count as a form of communication. The Islamic State is clearly not amenable to traditional forms of diplomacy, but violence is a language they speak well. If we had the political will to follow through with such retaliations, they would most likely respond. The Russians, for example, have used such a strategy with reasonable success. Unfortunately, we lack the political will to have any sort of proactive strategy.

It is a bit disappointing that an economist is focused on surface-level morality and ignores the effect of incentives on behavior. Moral posturing is fine for status signaling, but it does not incentivize good behavior.

I have evolved this way of thinking at things. Suppose there is a problem. A statist who perceives the problem may at the same time perceive a need for new action on the part of some state. Drop a bomb perhaps. But, since I fancy myself a good libertarian, when I perceive the problem I try to figure out what government has done to create this problem. I see what government should undo. What prior act of state, if repealed, will make it less likely in future that problems like this will recur.

Pertaining to the anger expressed by some radical Muslims toward the US, here are some ways the US might help by repealing interventions.

  • Stop supporting the state of Israel.

  • Stop limiting the immigration of people who seek safety in the US.

  • Stop interfering with formation of private armies. If many US residents want a war in the middle east, get out of their way.

You will notice that I have offered only a way to think about problems. I have not offered a way to make yourself popular or to find proposals that may win acceptance in a Western democracy.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard O. Hammer,
All good thoughts. You missed another: stop interfering in their countries.

NZ writes:
...here are some ways the US might help by repealing interventions.
  • Stop limiting the immigration of people who seek safety in the US.
Hah! Yes, import the beheaders. By the magic of setting foot on American soil, their urge to behead Americans will be turned into an urge to start companies and vote for libertarian candidates.

I apologize for being snarky, but come on man.

roystgnr writes:
I *don't* understand committing that momentary sentiment to the public eye.
Weird; I was just about to point out the opposite. "We don't punish evil if it takes enough hostages" might be a decent policy to hold but it's obviously an awful policy to announce.

Newcomb's paradox at first seems to be of limited practicality, since it postulates a player who's superhuman enough to reliably predict opponent(s) strategy in advance. But, you take a look around the real world and you see people metaphorically shouting "I'd take both boxes! Both boxes!" and suddenly the postulates seem a bit more plausible.

rowbigred26 writes:

@ Carl

War may be one method of diplomacy and international communication but that doesn’t make it the best one. Just because ISIS is fluent in violence should not condemn others who are not. This is the first argument I’ve seen making the case for a nation to act more like Russia. Pro-activity does not equal moral activity.

I don’t see how murdering innocent women and children will incentivize good behavior. I see it leading to planes flying into buildings, marathon bombings, suicide boat attacks, and YouTube beheadings.

Notorious B.O.B. writes:

Neco eos omnes; Deus suos agnoscit.

They understand one thing and they're all in it together....

Oderint dum metuant.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"What is your recommendation for the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq?"

Liberalize US immigration policy...

David R. Henderson writes:

@NZ,
I apologize for being snarky
Apology accepted.
But you missed the point. Richard was addressing the question asked by an earlier commenter about what to do about people who are presumably innocent. My guess is that he, like me, would have some filter for keeping out killers.

NZ: Thank you for your reaction. You see a problem: Murderers may be set loose in US. That is a problem I agree. But I continue looking for answers in the less-state direction.

First I believe the motive for angry Muslims to murder random Americans would diminish with my first suggestion: the US government stop maintaining the state of Israel. This is a problem made by the US government. Do you agree?

And further you must be assuming, entirely naturally and correctly, that the ports and roadways in US would be owned and policed by government, allowing unimpeded travel to all whom the government has not imprisoned. That is a problem created by government, in my way of thinking. The owners of private ports and roadways, on the other hand, could restrict access at will.

I expect this must sound nuts to you. Yet I have written a number of papers for libertarian theorists, here is one.

It seems to me that most of us who grew up in Western democracies have learned to look for solutions to problems through (centralizing, self-serving) media toward a (centralizing, self-serving) capital city. This centralizing process seems to serve those who receive government handouts and paychecks. But unless I am mistaken it also debilitates flexibility and vitality of the underlying economy.

rboggs writes:

David
There is no perfect solution to the problem of evil. As Burke said “For evil to win all is required for good men to do nothing”. If you pick up a sword and slay the evil you will forever be changed. Can you put down the sword and like Cincinnatus take up the pursuit of peace. You will no longer be pure, wise and virtuous. Many people will not do anything until it happens to them and that is to late. Can you stand at the border and see men, women and children killed and say I will do anything
for that would be interfering in another country. What will you do?
vikingvista,
Raising money to ransom hostages will result in a growing business in taking hostages. The Angle-Saxons learned that giving gold to the Danes resulted in more Danes demanding more gold. Same thing will happen here. It's called danegeld.
Mr. Econotarian,
Liberalize US immigration policy? If the Yazidis can get on a boat, get to Matamoros, cross the Rio Grand to Brownsville, claim to be a tribe from Honduras, they are in. Can't get more liberal then that.

David.
I read your blog every day and enjoy it very much.

Ak Mike writes:

Mr. Hammer - with regard to your comment that maintaining the state of Israel is a problem made by the US government - please clarify. Do you mean that in the absence of US maintenance, the state of Israel would be destroyed, the Jews among its population slaughtered or driven into exile, and that this would be a good thing?

Acad Ronin writes:

Once you commit to war you know your actions will mean the death of some innocents. However, there is still a massive moral difference between targeting the innocent and accepting that despite one's best efforts innocents will suffer.

When fighting an ideology that claims moral superiority, one must establish one's own moral superiority. We won't convert hardcore ISIS, but if we combine moral behavior with inflicting harm on ISIS, over time those who have joined ISIS out of a sense of adventure and participating in "jihad" will feel they can surrender without fear of beheading. At the same time, more and more Muslims will reject ISIS and no longer fund it, and may even support us with the intelligence we need to further degrade the enemy.

On a purely tactical level, ISIS apparently doesn't field mass formations or form static lines but rather uses swarming by relatively small units. This means MOABs and B52 carpet-bombing runs are unlikely to be useful. Fighting ISIS seems to call more for A-10 Warthogs, Apache gunships, and armed drones, all under the direction of small teams of special forces accompanying equally mobile commandos (in the Boer sense) of local troops.

Tom West writes:

The Russians, for example, have used such a strategy with reasonable success.

If Afghanistan and Chechnya were reasonable successes, I'll take reasonable failure.

John Cunningham writes:

Ever notice that Russians are never kidnapped in the Middle East? ever wonder why? in 1986, Hezbollah kidnapped 4 Soviet diplomats and threatened to kill them unless the USSR ceased backing Syria in Lebanon. then, one Russian was killed, with his body left in a park. the Soviets said nothing. they sent in KGB teams, kidnapped a number of male relatives of Hezbollah, and killed them, with their genitals deposited in their mouths. The KGB then advised that they could get many more male relatives. the three surviving diplomats were soon released. no more Soviet/Russian kidnappings since them.
watch and learn.

Mark Bahner writes:
One innocent man is killed and Reynolds advocates retaliating not just by killing many of the bad guys but by killing all of the people in a town that the bad guys hold.

That reminds me of the responses in Liberty magazine to 9/11. One piece advocated dropping nuclear weapons in Afghanistan. I remember thinking something like, 'I thought this magazine was written by libertarians...?"

P.S. My memory isn't always 100%. So if anyone keeps a copy of that issue, and it merely said that's what likely *would* happen, rather than should happen, please correct me.

P.P.S. Never mind. My memory is good enough. (This time, anyway.) Check out Sarah McCarthy's "Time to Fight". Which should maybe be "A Time to Kill (Mostly Innocent People)."

Time to Kill; Liberty Magazine, November 2001

Mark Bahner writes:
it's called "war" and y'all should be more familiar with the concept

I'm very familiar with the concept war as it's described in the Constitution. Congress declares war. Then we're at war.

Mark Bahner writes:
Just to play a little (literal) devil's advocate, but can you really say that anyone left alive in an ISIS controlled town is innocent at this point?

So there is not a single child in any ISIS controlled town? Or are children not innocent? Of what are they guilty?

Mark Bahner writes:
As Burke said “For evil to win all is required for good men to do nothing”.

I can do you better (in great lines of all time):

Kent Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?

Professor: Yes I would, Kent.

ZC writes:

@Mark Bahner

"I'm very familiar with the concept war as it's described in the Constitution. Congress declares war. Then we're at war."

You must be a lawyer or an English professor. Say, if some foreign power started bombing US cities, or nuked the Capitol such that Congress couldn't convene to declare war...we wouldn't be at war with them?

The concept of war existed long before the US Constitution.

Carl writes:

@ rowbigred

You are being deliberately obtuse. Negative reinforcement is a well proven psychological tool. If you believe the Islamic State would not respond to those types of incentives then I would like to know why.

While it is clear that hope is not a plan it does not mean that overwhelming retaliation is our only alternative. My preferred approach would be disengagement. Let them kill each other and stay out of it. As part of that it would be necessary to restrict visas and refugee resettlement. This is also not politically palatable.

rowbigred26 writes:

@ Carl

If I were being obtuse, I can assure you it was not deliberate. Your original comment made the case that it was morally ok to kill innocent people as collateral damage in a larger strike against ISIS. This is the Hiroshima argument.

The author and Don Boudreaux have both posted great articles discussing this.

Yes negative reinforcement can be effective. I have spanked my child when she's lied or done something else that could not go unpunished. I don't, however, kick the dog when my child lies. Maybe it would convince her not to lie anymore but it might also have unintended consequences. Especially if she starts to believe that sacrificing the dog might be worth X behavior.

David R. Henderson writes:

@rowbigred26,
I don't, however, kick the dog when my child lies.
Nicely put.

Mark Bahner writes:
You must be a lawyer or an English professor.

I'm an engineer. But unlike 99+% of the U.S. population:

1) I've actually read and understand the Constitution, and

2) I've actually thought about and appreciate what keeps people safe in the 21st century.

This will probably come as a shock to you, but what will keep us safe in the 21st century is if the federal government actually follows the law. (!!! Novel idea, I realize!) And the "supreme law of the land" is contained in the Constitution and treaties (e.g., the Geneva Conventions).

What is the danger to U.S. citizens here in the U.S.? It is foreign governments. Not foreign or U.S. citizens.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear: only Congress has the power to declare war. This keeps us safe, because no one person should be given the power to decide whether or not the U.S. is at war.

If Barack Obama (or you, or anyone else) thinks that ISIS is a threat to us in the U.S., he or she should request/demand/advocate for a Congressional declaration of war on ISIS. And if the Congressional declaration of war is made, then the President should actually wage war on them. And he should wage war until their leaders come to our generals and sign a public and unconditional surrender. That's how we are kept safe in the 21st century.

Say, if some foreign power started bombing US cities, or nuked the Capitol such that Congress couldn't convene to declare war...we wouldn't be at war with them?

Those are two separate questions:

1) "...if some foreign power started bombing US cities,..." -->We would not be at war until Congress declared war.

2) "...or nuked the Capitol such that Congress couldn't convene to declare war..."-->Right now, the Constitution is not really adequate for that situation. Congress should be working on a Constitutional amendment to cover a situation in which so many members of Congress are killed or injured that Congress can no longer raise a quorum.

Now, I've have a couple of questions for you.

1) Suppose, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congress had debated and decided not to declare war on Japan. (For example, suppose they had instead declared war on Germany...with the idea to declare war on Japan after Germany had been defeated.) Would we have been at war with Japan, even though Congress debated the matter, and decided not to declare war on Japan?

2) Suppose some people from Canada blow up the Chrysler building...or the Capitol. Are we at then at war with Canada?

Carl writes:

@ rowbigred

"Have you tried kill all the poor?"

Morality is rarely a black and white issue. If we make it our policy to "do no evil" then we can easily find ourselves in the situation where we allow evil to be done. For example, I stated in my second comment that I would prefer a policy of disengagement. This would require us to turn a blind eye toward the Islamic State eliminating their religious minorities, like the Yezidis.

Let's not pretend there are easy answers. Directly opposing the Islamic State results in innocent deaths due to airstrikes, beheading of journalists, etc. Not opposing the Islamic State results in innocent deaths as explained above. We can argue which is the lesser evil, but there is no perfect solution.

vikingvista writes:

"vikingvista,
Raising money to ransom hostages will result in a growing business in taking hostages."


Of course that is the usual argument for "never negotiate with a terrorist". But would you say the FBI's policy of paying ransom to kidnappers has created a market for kidnapping?

Danegeld was a payment to quell raiding, not a payment to separate targets from innocents. But even so, Danegeld served its purpose of giving the Saxons time to build and consolidate their forces until they could resist the raiders. You seem to falsely think Danegeld served the raiders in the long run rather than those with the foresight to make the payments.

And, BTW, I'm sure you'll find plenty of people in the intelligence community who would tell you that not only is "never negotiate with a terrorist" a self-defeating proscription, it is thankfully ignored even by the US government (perhaps most famously by Ronald Reagan himself, and more recently in the albeit unsuccessful attempts to negotiate Foley's release).

Vangel writes:

Just to play a little (literal) devil's advocate, but can you really say that anyone left alive in an ISIS controlled town is innocent at this point?

The fact that this question is being asked by what appears to be a rational individual is disturbing. Of course there are many innocent people who had nothing to do with ANY of the violence that has taken place and the murder in particular. When we turn ordinary people into cartoon characters just so that we can feel better about our crimes against them we really need to be concerned about our own character and our principles.

rowbigred26 writes:

@ Carl

I hadn't seen that, thank you. A good break in the middle of an otherwise boring workday.

Morality isn't always black and white, you're right. But there are more options than we'd like to pretend. The choice between bombing an ISIS town (and virtually assuring loss of innocent life) and doing nothing (and virtually assuring loss of innocent life) is a false one. There are more options. As mentioned above in the comments there are other, more effective, tactical measures for dealing with ISIS.

There are is no easy solution but some answers are easy. Don't indiscriminately bomb towns as if it's the only option.

That's not to say you are suggesting it is the only option, but that's what the post was all about.

Les Cargill writes:

The design goal of terrorism is to provoke overreaction in the target.

This being said, violence - potentially massive violence - is clearly on the table.

So there's this sort of Bootleggers and Baptists thing between the terrorists and the Neocons...

Carl writes:

@ rowbigred

I've looked through the previous comments, and I think all of them easily fit into one of the two choices I listed. I may disagree on the details of implementation, but the broad outline of disengagement or retaliation is there. Either solution has its advantages and disadvantages. The false choice is between good and evil. There is no good choice.

Musca writes:

We are forgetting a few alternative options and a few other lessons of history. See first Sherman, in the US Civil War. He realized something fundamental - government institutions may wage war, but intellectual leaders and their supporters drive and maintain the motive and will to fight.

Contra Mark Bahner above, the ultimate danger is not just foreign governments. It is those who support those governments with intellectual ammunition and motivation to continue the fight - those include opinion and cultural leaders who may themselves never pick up a gun or wear a uniform (and, yes, those well-fed pundits mentioned above fit in that category nicely).

Sherman realized that the fight would continue so long as the Union forces merely went after the opposing army. So, he took the war to allegedly "innocent civilians" pushing their brethren to fight... by burning their homes and farms, and destroying their wealth. The US Civil War was over in 6 months thanks to Sherman.

Remember, too, that Sherman did not indiscriminately "target civilians" or otherwise wantonly kill those outside the opposing military. He simply made the costs of war apparent and felt to those who otherwise could support it without penalty. On this count, the number of truly innocent bystanders in war is remarkably few.

vikingvista writes:

Musca,

So is it safe to say that you think the appropriate response to words you don't like is sometimes the destruction of lives and property?

ZC writes:

@Mark Bahner

"What is the danger to U.S. citizens here in the U.S.? It is foreign governments." What about non-state, non-governmental actors. They have certainly demonstrated their ability to endanger ( and kill) US citizens.

1) Suppose, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congress had debated and decided not to declare war on Japan. Would we have been at war with Japan, even though Congress debated the matter, and decided not to declare war on Japan?
-- Yep, we'd still be at war. Per your logic, some country to ride roughshod across the US, taking territory and killing people, but as long as Congress-critters don't vote to declare war, it's not war. Not sure what you'd call it, if you asked the people losing their friends, family, and land, they'd tell you it was war, whatever the vote in the House.

2) Suppose some people from Canada blow up the Chrysler building...or the Capitol. Are we at then at war with Canada? We'd be at war with whomever funded, helped, and/or sanctioned whomever committed the act against our national interests.

War existed long before the Constitution, and being at war (in reality, not the pedantic legalese world you choose to inhabit) happens independent of the vote of 535 people.

One country, or a group of non-state actors, don't need the consent (vote of Congress) to commit and Act of War against the US or to engage in a sustained violent campaign against our interests.

Mark Bahner writes:
1) Suppose, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congress had debated and decided not to declare war on Japan. Would we have been at war with Japan, even though Congress debated the matter, and decided not to declare war on Japan? -- Yep, we'd still be at war.

So even though the Constitution states that only Congress can declare war, and Congress explicitly decides not to declare war, we would still have been at war?

Why even bother having a Constitution, if it makes no difference what it says?

2) Suppose some people from Canada blow up the Chrysler building...or the Capitol. Are we at then at war with Canada? We'd be at war with whomever funded, helped, and/or sanctioned whomever committed the act against our national interests.

OK, suppose a group of 20 or 50 people in Montreal were behind the blowing up of the Chrysler building or Capitol. In your opinion, is Barack Obama (or Hilary Clinton, or whomever will be our future president) justified in then nuking Montreal, whenever he/she gets the idea that the suspects may live in Montreal?

Mark Bahner writes:
I've looked through the previous comments, and I think all of them easily fit into one of the two choices I listed. I may disagree on the details of implementation, but the broad outline of disengagement or retaliation is there.

This reminds me of the attitude of The West Wing and many movies. The attitude is that the U.S. military (and the president) are somehow authorized to perform "retaliation."

We've got a Department of Defense (formerly the War Department).

If Congress determines that there is a threat sufficient to declare war, that's what the Constitution gives them the power to do. Then, the Constitution gives the president the power to wage that war. There's nothing that gives the President the power to "retaliate" against some crime committed against a U.S. citizen or citizens anywhere in the world.

So there aren't just two choices. There's also a choice to follow the law or not to follow the law. (Unfortunately, U.S. presidents routinely choose not to follow the law, and neither the Congress or the people really care.)

Mark Bahner writes:
What about non-state, non-governmental actors. They have certainly demonstrated their ability to endanger ( and kill) US citizens.

Yes, but who was dangerous in Afghanistan in September 2011? It was the Taliban (and Mullah Omar in particular).

If the Taliban had not been shielding Osama bin Laden, he would have been extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for the U.S. embassy bombings. And well before that, it was the government of Sudan that protected him from being extradited to U.S. for earlier crimes.

The world is always going to have mass murderers (e.g. Timothy McVeigh). The real danger occurs when governments protect them from being put in jail.

Glen writes:

Reynolds is simply expressing the Jacksonian tradition in American foreign policy.

By almost any measure, the vast majority of Americans are Jacksonians. Which of course has no effect whatsoever on the longstanding tradition of a self-important (and self-appointed) small minority to attack Jacksonians as their moral inferiors.

Mike Rulle writes:

Dave is an elitist and a "regionalist". What was his premise behind ISIS with a "southern drawl"? Every time Dave gets into one of his holier than though discussions on war, the idea never gets fully resolved. I would like to hear from Dave when and if any killing is ever justified in war, and why. It is pretty easy to critique an obvious self aware hyperbole by Glenn Reynolds, but not so easy to come up with solutions to a violent world. Also, whoever mentioned Andrew Jackson as some kind of isolationist must be kidding. I guess manifest destiny does not count.

Mark Bahner writes:
Per your logic, some country to ride roughshod across the US, taking territory and killing people, but as long as Congress-critters don't vote to declare war, it's not war.

Some questions:

1) Doesn't it seem ridiculously implausible to you that any country on this particular earth will "ride roughshod across the US, taking territory and killing people"?

2) And even if that ridiculously implausible event were to occur, don't you think it would be ridiculously implausibly squared that Congress would not vote to declare war?

3) You obviously have little respect for "Congress-critters"...but therefore you have more respect for a single man or woman (i.e., a president)? A man or woman who may not even be facing election ever again?

Granite26 writes:

In pure self defense, of course there are children in towns. The point I was (hyperbolically) making is that in most ISIS controlled towns, a large amount of the populace welcomed them with open arms as an alternative to... whatever... to the extent of tacitly supporting the great evils ISIS was committing, including mass murder of their neighbors. This doesn't excuse mass bombing of a civilian populace as a retaliatory measure, but it does change the calculus about how we're obligated to treat the people in the towns, and the level of danger to civilians we should accept.

Mark Bahner writes:
The point I was (hyperbolically) making is that in most ISIS controlled towns, a large amount of the populace welcomed them with open arms as an alternative to... whatever... to the extent of tacitly supporting the great evils ISIS was committing, including mass murder of their neighbors.

How do you know that "..in most ISIS controlled towns, a large amount of the populace welcomed them with open arms..."?

To start with, I don't think any non-Sunnis would welcome them. I doubt most women would welcome them. So that would probably be a majority already.

The thing is, when a group that is known to be incredibly violent takes over a town, it makes sense to "smile and grin at the change all around," in the immortal words of Roger Daltrey.

Even suppose that you're a guy with a wife and kids, and ISIS comes to your neighbors' house and kills them all. What are you going to do?

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