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Rethinking Killing Civilians

When challenged about airstrikes that kill civilians—whether from drones or jets with “smart” ordnance—the excuses given by government and military officials are twofold. Either it was a regrettable error or it was a regrettable side effect of targeting a known “bad guy”—an ISIS leader, al Shabaab terrorist, a Taliban boss or al Qaeda commander. Collateral damage. The LOADR response. Lipstick on a dead rat.

So committing a war crime is OK if you say it’s regrettable?

“Yeah, but those guys behead journalists and enslave girls.”

True that, and ISIS has well earned the hatred and disgust most decent people on Earth feel for them. As well, when the US military strafes and bombs hospitals, can we wonder at all why the US is hated with enough venom to overpower morality? Yes, it’s true, when the US slaughters civilians it calls it a mistake and when ISIS does so they crow like proud two-year-olds with zero sense of right and wrong. But my question is, when are the American people going to stop allowing our military—representing all of us in a democracy—to commit crimes against humanity?

The Obama administration claims that the only civilians worth worrying about are in countries not designated as war zones and that, in those countries the US has only killed between “64 and 116 civilians in drone and other lethal air attacks against terrorism suspects.” Those nations presumably include Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. No numbers need be given for Iraq, Afghanistan, nor Syria. Civilians there are presumably fair game.

At least four organizations are keeping independent tallies and all are far higher in their assertions of minimum civilian deaths in those designated non-war zones.

What of the broader picture?

The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University frames the largest study and tracks civilian deaths from military actions; their study estimates from documented accounts that as of March last year approximately 210,000 noncombatants have been killed in the Global War on Terror launched in October 2001.

So, at some point, we have to wonder; If the US intelligence services determine that an ISIS homegrown leader is living in a building in Queens or North Minneapolis or Beaverton, Oregon will it be OK then to target that building with a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone?

How ridiculous, right? We would never do that.

Except that we do, routinely, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan. When will this stop?

It will stop when we are not only morally opposed to it but when we decide to be effective. Our violent response to terrorism escalates at every turn, guaranteeing that, in turn, terrorism against the US will also escalate. It is time to reject the idea that a nuanced, nonviolent approach is ineffective. Indeed, it’s a bit reminiscent of what Winston Churchill said about democracy, that it’s the worst form of government—except for all the rest. Nonviolence is the worst way to manage conflict—except for all the rest.

We not only create more terrorists when we accidentally or mistakenly take out a hospital, almost more importantly, we create a widening, deepening pool of sympathy for any sort of insurgency against the US. While it is true that sympathy and support for terrorists is nowhere near the support for armed insurgency—and there is a great deal of difference—why on Earth would we continue to essentially guarantee that this global war on terror is permanent?

Why indeed? There are those who gain in status, power, and money by a continuation of this godawful war. These are the people who lobby hardest for more war.

Those people should be absolutely ignored. We need to fix this with other methods. We can, and we should.

If the US would rethink its methods of conflict management it might come to solutions without bloodshed. Some of problem is simply who is asked to advise the deciders. In some countries the officials consult with expert scholars and practitioners of mediation, negotiation, humanitarian aid and sustainable development. Those countries keep the peace much better. Most—e.g. Norway, Denmark, Sweden—have better metrics of citizen well-being than we do in the US.

We can help. As an example in our hemisphere, the rebels and the government in Colombia waged a 52-year war, each side committing many atrocities and the well-being of the average Colombian suffered for more than a half-century. Finally, peace and conflict scholars from the Kroc Institute were invited to help—the first time any academic program in our field was invited to do so in the West. They introduced new ideas and the happy outcome is that finally—finally—the Colombians have a signed peace accord. Yes, the voters narrowly rejected it, but the principals are back at the table, not the battlefield, to work on a more agreeable agreement.

Please. We have the knowledge to end this terrible dance of death known as war. Humankind now knows how. But do we have the will? Can we step up as voters and require our successful candidates to stop boasting about how tough and lethal they will be and instead insist that the successful candidate will explain and commit to a productive peace process that is proven to produce much more gain with far less pain?

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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