Devaluing Life
Project Syndicate, January, 2006

In August 2001, President George W. Bush told Americans that he worried about “a culture that devalues life,” and that he believed that, as President of the United States, he has “an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

That belief lay behind Bush’s denial of federal government funds for stem-cell research that could encourage the destruction of human embryos. Although the Bush administration acknowledged that some scientists believe stem cell research could offer new ways of treating diseases that affect 128 million Americans, this prospect evidently did not, in Bush’s view, justify destroying human embryos.

Last month, the military forces that this same president commands aimed a missile at a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghanistan border. Eighteen people were killed, among them five children. The target of the attack, Al Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was not among the dead, although lesser figures in the terrorist organization reportedly were.

Bush did not apologize for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. Apparently, he believes that the chance of killing an important terrorist leader is sufficient justification for firing a missile that will almost certainly kill innocent human beings.

Other American politicians took the same stance. Senator Trent Lott, a conservative Republican – and a prominent opponent of abortion – said of the attack: “Absolutely, we should do it.” Senator John McCain, another leading Republican, though one often ready to disagree with Bush, expressed regret for the civilian deaths, but added, “I can’t tell you that we wouldn’t do the same thing again.”

Indeed, it would be hard for the current administration to say that it wouldn’t do the same thing again, because it has done it many times before. On November 1, 2001, American planes bombed Ishaq Suleiman, a group of mud huts, because a Taliban truck had been parked in one of the streets. The truck left before the bomb hit, but 12 local villagers were killed and 14 were injured. There are many more such stories of innocent lives being lost in the war in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, too, American attacks have taken the lives of many civilians. Again, one of many examples will suffice. On April 5, 2003, a civilian neighborhood in Basra was bombed. The target was General Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” because of his use of chemical weapons against Iraqis. One bomb hit the home of the Hamoodi family, a respected, educated family, none of whose members belonged to the ruling Baath Party. Of the extended family of 14, ten were killed, including an infant, a two-year-old baby, a 10-year-old boy, and a 12-year-old girl. Four months later, Majid was captured alive; the bombs had missed their intended target.

This consistent pattern of readiness to inflict civilian casualties – often when striking targets that are not of vital military significance – suggests that Bush and other pro-life American leaders have less concern for the lives of innocent human beings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, than they have for human embryos. This is a bizarre set of priorities. No parents grieve for a lost embryo in the way that they would grieve over the death of a child. No embryos are capable of suffering, or have hopes or desires for the future that are abruptly cut off by their death.

It might be possible to justify the loss of innocent human life in Damadola by a utilitarian calculation that killing Al Qaeda’s leaders will, in the long run, save a larger number of innocent human beings. After all, if they remain at large, they may succeed in carrying out further terrorist attacks that take hundreds or even thousands of innocent lives. Bush, however, cannot rely on that argument, for it is precisely the kind of justification that he rejects when it comes to destroying embryos in order to save, in the long run, those dying from diseases for which we currently have no cure.

Other moralists will say that the difference between destroying embryos for research purposes and killing civilians in military attacks is that the former is deliberate killing, whereas the latter deaths are “collateral damage” – unintended, if foreseeable, side-effects of a justifiable act of war.

We can grant that it was not the primary intention of those who planned and authorized the attack on Damadola to kill innocent people. We can also accept that al-Zawahiri is undoubtedly a dangerous foe, still active in a terrorist movement, and that he is a legitimate military target. Perhaps this particular attack can be justified on those grounds.

Nevertheless, the doctrine that it is acceptable to take actions that will foreseeably kill innocent people can have the effect of leading us to treat more lightly than we should the deaths of those killed. That, it seems, is what has happened somewhere in the American chain of command. The presence of a Taliban truck does not justify bombing a village in which civilians are going about their daily lives. Killing innocent people in order to bring a kind of rough justice to “Chemical Ali” – a particularly nasty member of Saddam’s military elite, but one who at the time of the raid was no longer in command of military forces – is wrong.

A culture that allows – and even endorses – such tactics is not one that is genuinely committed to encouraging respect for life. We can be quite sure that American forces would not have acted in the same way if the civilians nearby had been other Americans.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Devaluing Life'