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Bombing the Devil in the Pale Moonlight

If not inevitable, last night’s French air strikes on Islamic State, in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, were an understandable response by the French government. This is ‘understandable’ in the sense that the worst terrorist attacks in Europe since the 2004 Madrid bombings were bound to stir the French government into action. The French President, François Hollande, called the murder of over a hundred civilians an ‘Act of War’, the French police have conducted over 150 raids, and French aeroplanes have hit Raqqa, the default capital of the Islamic State.

It is a testament to our time that before the Paris attacks were even over, people were already trying to use corpses to score political points on Twitter and other social media platforms. Does the possibility that one of the suspects came to France by pretending to be a refugee mean that EU countries should shut their borders, or is that a right-wing gambit to deny those fleeing violence in Syria a safe haven? Either way, the attacks will have an effect on EU border policy.

Inevitably, some people are calling for greater intervention, like Max Boot:

The only way to diminish the threat is to get on offensive, to end the phony war and engage in a real war against ISIS. What would such a “real war” strategy look like? We should be inspired by the aftermath of 9/ 11. The U.S., recall, did not stage a massive conventional invasion of Afghanistan. Instead we sent a relatively small number of Special Operations Force and CIA paramilitaries, backed by massive air power, to work with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban.

Will “real war” work? Who knows? But we do know that refusing to engage has consequences, too. Only, no-one seems willing to engage with the hard moral choices inherent in either path (crudely: intervene, don’t intervene). In my mind, the challenge of IS (and like groups) is that there is no neutral moral response to their actions. More to the point, there is no “clean” option either way. In my mind, the following two questions are indivisible from one another:

A) How many hundreds or thousands of civilians are you willing to tolerate being killed on your behalf in order to “end” IS?
B) How many hundreds or thousands of your country’s citizens are you willing to tolerate being killed by IS (and connected groups) to preserve your conscience?

I think there is a moral case for either option: that IS is so bad that it is worth killing thousands of civilians in the process of functionally destroying the group; that it is better to suffer multiple terrorist attacks than go to war in the middle east. What I find troubling is the internal collusion of silence on either side of the debate on intervention against IS. People who argue that terrorism - even mass casualty terrorism - should be treated as a criminal matter, and therefore as no grounds to use military force abroad, tend to pass over the number of 9/11s, or 7/7s, that they’d be willing to have their fellow citizens put up with, to preserve this moral position. Likewise, people like Boot are perfectly happy to throw around potential troop increases, operational choices, and so on. They tend to be less forthcoming with a ballpark civilian casualty count that they’d tolerate, even though everyone knows civilian casualties are inevitable in significant military operations. Part of the reason that war can even be morally justifiable in the first place (according to some) is that the inevitable deaths of civilians can be weighed against a greater social harm or consequences of inaction. Even classical realists engaged with these kind of issues. Take, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “There are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.”

My argument here is not to come down on either side, but that there is no easy or clean way out. Inaction has consequences for the entire middle east. IS apparently numbers some 30,000 people, a military option that is so precise that 1 civilian is killed for every 10 members of IS (very, very, low), would still leave a ballpark figure of 3,000 dead civilians at the hands of intervening states. Leaving militia proxies to do the “heavy lifting” of killing people would likely result in a high civilian casualty ratio (so is it morally okay that more civilians die, so long as our forces don’t kill them?). On the flip-side, how much can a person honestly say that they value their present day society and its values, if they refuse to engage with the sacrifices that preserving that status quo might entail? The societal aspect of this is important, particularly when it comes to counter-terrorism legislation, because at the end of the day, even if pre-emptive alterations to the relationship between the state and population are always a work of supposition, the maintenance of the same set of relationships in the face of atrocity is another matter. At the end of the day, I respect people who are able to engage with those kind of moral questions (even if I disagree with them) far more than people who throw theories of interventionist action (or inaction) around like so many paper planes.