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The Fallacious Human Shield and Collateral Damage Arguments


Lady Justice, Justitia, depicted as a blindfolded statue since the 15th century, illustrates John Rawl’s conception of justice as requiring a veil of ignorance (A Theory of Justice, 1971).  Such a veil of ignorance means that, in order to be just, we must ignore the differences between people, such as their identity, power or weakness.

To be just, in the following cases, we must not victimize the innocent, whether that person is a cherished child in one’s family or an unknown girl in Iraq, Gaza, or Israel.  To do otherwise, in cases of violent conflict, would not only be unjust, it would be terrorism.  If one accepts this principle, then the justifications of bombing “militants,” regardless of their use of human shields, or the inevitable civilian deaths as “collateral damage” are fallacious arguments, as explained below.

The human shield argument, in the news today from Israel and the war with Gaza and in the ongoing debates about drones, is similar to the collateral damage argument.  Let’s take the collateral damage argument first.  (Of course, this argument is given from the perspective of those asserting the argument, not the victims of the argument.)

The collateral damage argument goes like this: First, the enemy intentionally places itself close to civilian populations, so that any attack on the enemy will necessitate civilian deaths.  Second, since it is the enemy’s intent to put those civilians at risk, civilian deaths are the enemy’s responsibility, not ours.  Therefore, the argument’s proponents are, however regrettably, free to kill civilians because the enemy put them in harm’s way, and cynically uses these deaths for propaganda advantage.

Following along the lines of this collateral damage argument, the human shield argument goes like this: First, the enemy hides amongst civilians, notably in hospitals and schools, so that any attack on the enemy will necessitate civilian deaths, especially children and the sick.  Second, since it is the enemy’s intent to put those civilians at risk, the deaths of these children and infirm are the enemy’s responsibility, not ours.  Therefore (again with sorrow) we are free to kill children, nurses, doctors and patients because the enemy put them in harm’s way, and cynically uses these deaths for propaganda advantage.

Now, let’s look at these arguments from the perspective of the “enemy,” the potential victims of this argument.  Their reply is, “How else would you like us to situate our soldiers, leadership, and munitions manufacturing?  Would you like us to place these people and buildings in areas free of civilians, so that they could be more easily targeted and destroyed?”  Furthermore, it is important to remember that the world exists in an era of asymmetrical warfare, where exceedingly powerful countries are perceived as occupying and forcefully governing lands of disputed rule or ownership (e.g., Palestine, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan), and are waging war against an overmatched enemy that resorts to guerrilla warfare.

Using an analogy (and being mindful that no analogy is perfect), consider two bank robbery scenarios.  In one case, the bank robber takes a child hostage and holds the child in front of himself as a human shield.  In this case, a police officer would not shoot through the child to kill the bank robber.  There are other ways of catching the bank robber that would not entail the child’s death.  In the other case, we would not drop a bomb on plotting bank robbers having a meeting at an apartment complex with innocent people around.  There would be another way of stopping bank robbery conspirators.

Indeed, if terrorists were in an apartment in Manhattan or Seattle, we would not bomb the apartment–no matter how “smart” the bomb. Innocent civilian life is too highly valued to do that.  There would be another way of apprehending those terrorists.

If we apply our ethics, as Justitia, we would protect our civilians, children, and infirm, in Phoenix, Arizona, just as we should do everything we can to protect the civilians in rural Afghanistan, Iraq,  or in Gaza or Israel. At the very least, we should contribute nothing to hurting those children.  All civilians deserve the freedom from being treated like expendables by any military anywhere.  Anything short of respecting that freedom makes us all terrorists.

Robert J. Gould, Ph.D., is an ethicist, writes for PeaceVoice, and directs the Conflict Resolution Graduate and Undergraduate Programs at Portland State University.

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