Good Killing and Bad Killing


“I strongly condemn the killings and I urge and call upon all of the free world, nations which love peace, to not only condemn the killings, but to use every ounce of their power to prevent them from happening in the future.”

President Bush, denouncing a suicide bomber attack in Jerusalem

President Bush criticized Israel on June 10 2003 for attempting to assassinate a militant Palestinian Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi. The next day Bush criticized the answering Palestinian suicide bombing attack on a bus in Jerusalem. He urged “free nations which love peace to not only condemn the killings but to use every ounce of their power to prevent them from happening in the future”.

What kind of power stops the killings?

There is killing power of course-the idea that good killing can eliminate bad killing.

The President himself subscribes to this and he personally ordered the assassination killing solution for Saddam Hussein and his regime. Bush sent stunning military force against Iraq because he felt war was the good killing necessary to deal with “evil”. Bad killing in his logic justifies good killing. Bush’s administration presently defends the US preemptive attack on Iraq on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s brutality. Even if he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, the reasoning now goes, he killed and tortured viciously and therefore required killing. The agent’s intention governs the morality in this reasoning. The “free nations which love peace” kill righteously. The enslavers who love war kill wickedly. It’s good guys and bad guys rather than actions that determine morality. This subverts classical ethics which say primary morality derives from the act itself, not from the intention or situation.

When Bush rebuked Israel for its attempted Hamas assassination, Israel claimed its own self-defense right to fight terrorist organizations and pointed out that the US had just taken this posture and action. The Palestinians argue the same claim-they say that Israeli occupation and military oppression are terrorism and that they too are only defending themselves and resisting evil. Good killing and bad killing become issues of point of view. Each position moralizes its hurt, revenge and righteousness.

The young Palestinian suicide bomber on the Jerusalem bus dressed as an Orthodox Jewish student. He disguised himself as one dedicated to the enemy religion. He is named a terrorist by those he fought against and a martyr by those he fought for.


Was the suicide bomber a warrior or a martyr, or both, or neither? By conventional codes he’s a guerilla warrior-disguising himself, sneaking in, sabotaging, not distinguishing the civilian and the military. That distinction between killable and non-killable is usually argued as an important element of proper warfare. Don’t kill women and children and aged innocents, just combatants, soldiers garbed and properly identified as fighters. But these distinctions often dissolve even for us, the US, as the fire bombings of Dresden, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Vietnam and Iraqi wars demonstrate. War itself is clearly terrorism against civilian population as well as against combat against deputed fighters.

The US press, like the Pentagon, tries very hard in covering the Iraq war and occupation to emphasize the boundary between civilian and combatant-repeating the political refrain that we’re only after Saddam and the hardliners, not against the Iraqi people. June 14th’s New York Times’ front page features a soldier comforting another crying soldier who is upset after seeing Iraqi children wounded when playing with ammunition. The sense is that soldiers are not cruel killing machines, rather that they care about Iraqi children. In fact they burned and maimed and orphaned and killed many Iraqi children. They just didn’t mean to.

The suicide bomber meant to kill Israeli innocents. His terror is more malicious and unsentimental in intent. But the killing actions and the innocent dead don’t differ. Does morality depend on the intention of the warriors?

When people vilified the 9/11 terrorists many said they were cowardly, by which they meant to strip them of warrior status. Just as we demonized the kamikaze pilots in World War II, we sought to deny the terrorists any sacrificial warrior role. The Al Qaeda discipline and courage and dedication were ignoble to us because destruction of us was their cause. We felt ourselves innocent, not the Great Satan of anti-Islamic oppression. So we resisted the idea not only that the terrorists were martyrs, but even that they were warriors.

We thought of our dead as martyrs because they got killed. One warrior/martyr distinction is about agency-active and passive. Warriors kill and martyrs get killed. Warriors seek the death of the enemy; martyrs suffer their own death as the enemy. Martyrs do not kill others. Those who choose martyrdom allow themselves to die for the sake of ideals and witness. The Palestinian bomber immolates himself like the Buddhist monks set on fire during the Vietnam War, personally for a cause, but his action is to kill others. The bomber is a warrior not a martyr. He kills. It’s a useful distinction.

Being willing to die for your cause is necessary to martyrdom, but it’s different from being willing to kill for your cause which is warrior posture. Warriors are theoretically willing to die for their cause, but they try not to die. Martyrs endure others’ violence and thereby reveal it and refuse it. They make peace by absorbing the violence and not returning it. Christ was not a warrior.

One reason the US won world sympathy for the 9/11 attack was because those killed were seen as martyrs; they were killed for being in American buildings, sacrificed to an idea of war. President Bush’s response to 9/11 was to turn the savage brutality into full warrior response: kill the enemy. The bombing attack on Afganistan was reprisal for terrorism, though the leader, Osama bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein, was not eliminated. Bin Laden had often assumed the martyr mode as justification for his war. He declared himself a slave of Allah and said he acted in reprisal for the evil done God’s people and shrines. Saddam Hussein didn’t strike a religious posture. He admired strongman Stalin and sought to be feared. Bush was betwixt and between: pious and martyred in justification, “smoking ’em out of their holes” strongman in execution. All three are warriors in action-sending others to their deaths to execute their cause.


Jews, until the founding of modern Israel, haven’t been thought of primarily as warriors. To most Americans they have suffering biblical stereotypes, like their enslavement in Egypt in Exodus or the suffering servant of Yahweh and exile in Isaiah. The prophetic suffering servant figure is one who is innocent, who has done no violence nor had deceit on his tongue, and yet he is killed by those who vilify him, projecting their own violence and feeling righteous as they eliminate him as evil. The Christ story is modeled on this Isaiah figure. Modern Israel was achieved partly by guerilla warfare but also politically by Jewish martyr history. Most people take the cry “never again” to mean “this time we fight, no more Jewish holocausts”. The great warriors like Joshua and David in Jewish tradition, are not the inspiration, the suffering victim history is. The legitimizing of Israeli violence similarly rests not on warrior history (we are great fighters) but on victim history (we are great victims). Israeli violence is cast by the Israeli government as only self-defense, exactly as US violence was rationalized by Bush-he said we needed to protect ourselves against another 9/11 massacre.

This is a clear pattern in legitimizing violence. We were injured, we will defend ourselves, preemptively or vengefully. Even legally we tend to excuse killing if we can persuade a jury that the killer thought he was acting in self-defense. Self-defense is much more primal and easier to understand than complicated history, land claims and numbers of killed.

Islam, which means the peace of surrender to God, is in popular American understanding a war religion-sanctifying holy war or jihad. President Bush thinks of the US and Israel as democratic “peace-loving” nations and the Islamic terrorist menace looks like bad guys to him. Bush seems incapable of understanding US or Israeli violence except from the good guy point of view that legitimizes it.

Good killing doesn’t eliminate bad killing. It echoes and promotes it. The power to stop killing is not adjectival and moralizing. As the old Hebrew adage goes “A bad peace is better than a good war.”

Good killing and bad killing are enemy brothers, old stories like Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac. You can tell who they are, not by their fathers who are the same, but by what they do. The murderer is the one who kills.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

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