A Philosopher's Blog

Rockets & Retaliation

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 31, 2008

While the Russians have claimed that Hamas is willing to talk peace, rockets continue to rain down on Israel.

On the face of it, firing rockets into populated areas seems like a clearly immoral action. However, I have had enough debates about such matters to know that some people regard such tactics as morally acceptable. Outside of academic types, clearly the people who are involved with firing the rockets find their behavior acceptable. Either that or they are somehow overcoming any moral reluctance they might feel. It is worth considering what arguments might be used to morally justify such acts.

One main argument is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as punishment. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution (see John Locke’s arguments as good examples of this).

To counter this, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

It might be replied that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent. However, being and Israeli seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such attacks. To use a analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the university President can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally started randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars because they happened to be students of the university. While the students are associated with Big U, they hardly deserve her wrath. Likewise for the innocent civilians.

It could be argued that being a citizen comes with moral accountability such that each citizen is responsible for all that his/her nation does. So, the rocket attacks would be justified retaliation provided they killed only Israeli citizens (or other “guilty” people).

In reply, while citizens (at least in democracies) do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, surely not every citizen bears the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who has worked for the good of the people of Gaza or it could kill a child. Surely such people do not deserve death.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions).  However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim. On the face of it, such distinctions seem very important everywhere else. Why should this situation be different?

In light of these arguments, such random rocket attacks (and similar acts of terror) can not be justified as legitimate retaliation or punishment.

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7 Responses

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  1. josiahe said, on December 31, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Interesting approach; I’ll have to put my .02 cents in.

    Those who justify attacks against civilians, those who teach their chldren to hate, those who send their children into battle to throw rocks at tanks while their fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters fire at the tanks from behind the children (a common occurrence) – – – I have to see them as primitive, uncivilized people that operate from a mental illness!

  2. Boulos said, on December 31, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    You make a good point, but don’t you think that if Hamas was able to “punish” those who were responsible it would do so? Civilians should never be targetted, but comparing the capabilities of a nuclear nation with a what is essentially one large refugee camp just seems a bit silly.

  3. kernunos said, on December 31, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Yes, you are right. I would not pick a fight where I would always lose. Good point.

  4. Michael LaBossiere said, on December 31, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Boulos raises an important point and one worth considering.

    However, the fact that they lack the ability to “punish” those responsible cannot be taken to morally justify the firing of rockets at civilians. To use an analogy: suppose that the president of my university wrongs me, but I cannot do anything against him. So, I fail a few students at random to “punish” the president. That hardly seems justifiable.

  5. magus71 said, on January 1, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Let’s be clear here. Terrorism tactically targets civilians and other soft, non-mililatry targets, generally speaking. Strategically, they target the will of other states or peoples.

    Hamas can never win militarily in a strategic sense. It is part of their doctrine to attacka and wait for CNN and the New York times to display the Israeli response. Which is obviously a justified response. What would people in New York do if Canadians were launching rockets into Manhatten? They’d drop their peace signs and run for shelter–then blame George Bush.

    The point is–Hamas knows it can’t win by small, tactical attacks with rockets. It knows that sympathetic entities, world-wide–will rush to their defense and international political pressure will once again force the Israelis to capitulate in some manner.

    We are seeing the collapse of the Arab culture. They’re dying–or want to. It’s a kind of “death-by-cop”. The world’s constabulary has been forced to shoot the under-armed and over-zealous Arab-culture-with-a-death-wish. But the West–because we’re the West–keeps bringing the dying fellow to the ER, only to have him pull a gun yet again and go on a shooting spree.

  6. Boulos said, on January 3, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    I guess civilians are not targets if you call them “collateral damage” instead.

  7. kernunos said, on January 4, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Boulos, are you saying they are targeting civilians and then re-labeling them afterwards. That is and extremely shrewd tactic by the Israelis.

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