Tuesday | October 29, 2002

When Do-Gooders Kill

Reason magazine, which employs me, is hosting a debate over Iraq on its website this week, with Brink Lindsey endorsing a war and John Mueller opposing it. It's good reading, and I recommend it.

Meanwhile, I'd like to give a little bit of credit to the authorities in Moscow, in the wake of their horribly botched "rescue" this past weekend. If nothing else, they have provided a perfect model of how a fight against terrorism can go wrong.

Consider what happened. We had a band of Chechen terrorists committing an awful deed for their cause, holding a whole theater hostage and threatening to murder their captives. And then we had a heavy-handed reaction that produced far more deaths than the kidnappers ever did. The last tally I saw was 115 hostages dead from the gas the Russian police used to subdue the rebels, and only two dead from gunshot wounds, presumably at the hands of their captors.

Kind of puts that "moral equivalence" talk into perspective, doesn't it? Yes: if you set out in the morning to rescue some hostages, you are probably a much better person than the fellow who sets out to capture some. And I will ignore, for the sake of argument, the much less moral behavior that the Russian authorities have been guilty of over the years, including the brutal war in Chechnya itself. It is bad to commit terrorist acts. It is good to stop terrorist acts. The people who released that gas on Saturday were trying to do good.

In the process, they slaughtered the very people they were supposed to be helping. And all the moral certainty in the world won't bring back the dead.

Jesse Walker | October 29, 2002 11:23 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Ummmmm. . . . Wrong analysis.

You don't look at how many people the Russians killed vs. how many the Chechens killed.

You look at how many people the Russians killed vs. how many the Chechens would have killed if the Russians had not acted.

Posted by Lozenges on October 30, 2002 12:55 AM

It wasn't a siege it was an extended suicide mission. The aim was to get all the world's media in the parking lot to cover the big bang and trip to the 60 virgins each (do the women get 60 male virgins each...would make a clumsy time in eternity). The 'hostages' were dead from minute one. It was a fantastic achievement to lower the individual odds of survival from nil to 7 to 1.

Posted by si(mon) on October 30, 2002 09:03 AM

Perhaps you failed to read the bit about explosives wired to the building columns, the dozens of terrorists wearing suicide belts, the demonstrated willingness to kill hostages . . . .

The Russians did not kill 115 hostages. They saved 600.

Posted by Registered Independent Joel on October 30, 2002 10:03 AM

Let's see: The Chechens were possibly planning to kill everybody, therefore there's no room to criticize the Russians for so horribly botching the "rescue"?

I'm not arguing that they shouldn't have gone into the theater. I'm arguing that they should have had a better plan -- that they might, for example, have paid attention to the effects of the gas within a confined space.

More to the point, I was making a comparison to other ways the war on terror might go wrong -- most obviously, that there might be similarly nasty consequences to a war with Iraq, even though there's no moral equivalence between Bush and Hussein. Dividing the world into good guys and bad guys won't give you all the answers that you need, because even good guys can make terrible mistakes.

Posted by Jesse Walker on October 30, 2002 10:21 AM

If you wish to convince someone of the validity of your views you must first treat that person with respect.

Your say in your post and subsequent comment that the Moscow raid should open the eyes of war advocates since it demonstrates that things may go wrong. Do you honestly think that war proponents ignore or have no understanding of the possibility that the war may fail catastrophically? Do you think the Moscow raid will cause them to slap their foreheads and exclaim, "Shazzam! Someone could get hurt over there in Iraq!"

You cannot convince with condescension.

Posted by Shannon Love on October 30, 2002 12:21 PM

Yeah, actually, I do think that many "war proponents ignore or have no understanding of the possibility that the war may fail catastrophically," just as many war opponents pay too little attention to the mischief that Saddam could conceivably cause. If you're pro-war and you understand the risks and trade-offs of invading Iraq, then you shouldn't feel like I was condescending to you; you should feel like you agree with what I wrote.

The Moscow raid is a perfect example of how an action against terrorists (or other threats) can backfire. It also shows the limits of the "moral equivalence" cliché. I wrote my little squib because I thought those were points worth making, not because I thought my five measly paragraphs were going to reverse the entire direction of someone's thinking on the war.

Posted by Jesse Walker on October 30, 2002 12:44 PM

Indeed, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and yes, any sort of military action can have unintended and terrible consequences. At the same time, NOT taking military action can also have unintended and terrible consequences. And just as you hope the pro-war people understand this point, I too hope that the anti-war people understand it as well.

Posted by Geoff M on October 30, 2002 02:12 PM

"If you're pro-war and you understand the risks and trade-offs of invading Iraq, then you shouldn't feel like I was condescending to you; you should feel like you agree with what I wrote."

I'm sorry but this seems to boil down to, "If you really thought about everything you would agree with me. If you don't agree with me you haven't really thought about everything."

If you make an argument based on the reiteration of widely acknowledge facts, in this case, war kills and wars can spin out of control, then a person can reasonably accuse you of condescension. It's as if you ran up to a team of firefighters at a fire and yelled, "You can't go in that building! It's on fire. You could get burned!" The firefighters would rightly regard this as condescension. The already know a burning building presents dangers but they have judged that it is better to attempt to fight the fire than not too. Implying otherwise, without specific evidence, is disrespectful.

Posted by Shannon Love on October 30, 2002 02:42 PM

Unfortunately, this action by the Russian government falls perfectly into the pattern of their past actions with regards to the Chechen conflict -- win at all costs. Instead of taking the time to plan a rescue that would spare as many lives as possible, they felt the need to act definitively before any Muscovites could be killed by the rebels. To allow the guerillas of a breakaway republic to injure and kill on their own turf would be unthinkable -- the fact that they took out so many people in their definitive actions against the hostage takers would seem to be as irrelevent as the leveled cities and scores of refugees who resulted from their attempts to triumph on Chechen soil. This "rescue" was born of pride, not of benevolence.

Posted by Stacia B on October 30, 2002 02:58 PM

Stacia: You may well be right. I was, for the sake of argument, bending over backwards to give the Russian authorities the benefit of the doubt.

Shannon: I disagree that "an argument based on the reiteration of widely acknowledged facts" is necessarily condescending -- as do you, I suspect, since you're doing the exact same thing. At any rate, while the facts were not new, the analogy to the Russian "rescue" was.

Meanwhile, if I may beat an already disfigured analogy to death, the debate over the war involves not just whether the firemen will get burned, but whether they are entering the right house, whether their pumps are filled with water or with gasoline, and whether they're running down pedestrians on the way to the scene.

There are pro-war people who have thought these issues through. Blogdom is filled with others who have not.

Posted by Jesse Walker on October 30, 2002 03:25 PM

"You don't look at how many people the Russians killed vs. how many the Chechens killed.

You look at how many people the Russians killed vs. how many the Chechens would have killed if the Russians had not acted" (Lozenges)

"Perhaps you failed to read the bit about explosives wired to the building columns, the dozens of terrorists wearing suicide belts, the demonstrated willingness to kill hostages . . . .

The Russians did not kill 115 hostages. They saved 600." (Indy Joel)

OK, kids, time for some logic. We know that the gas was not 100% effective. We also know from basic physiology that no gas works instantly. We finally know that the Chechens seemed to be wired with explosives and had guns, lethal weapons that don't take long to deploy at all.

So, why are we all so sure that the Chechens were planning to kill everyone immediately if they only killed two people when the gas started flowing? Presumably, there's no way that all of the terrorists were immediately knocked out, all at the same time. If they wanted to kill more people, clearly they could have.

But the responses here are really revealing. They suggest:

-If one's cause is just, then any means of fighting are legitimate. (Even gas? Even killing innocent bystanders? Even causing much more damage than the threat likely would have caused?
-If one's cause is just, then one ALL of the blame for any miscalculation or negligence one commits falls squarely on the unjust enemy. (Even if the negligence was willful or demonstrated conscious and callous disregard for life? Even if the negligence was unconscionably stupid?).

Considering what we know about what the Chechens did when the gas and the moment of decision arrived, it seems that one can only claim that they SAVED rather than killed all of those people by embracing the two principles for regulating military engagement above. And these two principles are ones that could only be embraced by the utterly savage or the utterly fanatic.

Posted by Eric on October 30, 2002 05:30 PM

I suppose I must concede that somewhere out in the blogsphere somebody doesn't understand that wars follow unexpected paths but I can safely say I have never encountered them. Perhaps they are out walking their unicorns. ;-)

Posted by Shannon Love on October 30, 2002 06:10 PM
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