Rockets & Ethics

English: A Qassam rocket fired from a civilian...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a repeat of events in 2008 (and earlier) Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. Israel, not surprisingly, responded with attacks of its own. In addition to the political and humanitarian concerns, this matter raises numerous ethical issues.

One issue of concern is that Hamas generally locates its launch sites close to or in civilian areas. As such, Israel runs the risk of killing civilians when it attempts to destroy the launchers. This raises the general issue of launching attacks from within a civilian population.

On the face of it, this tactic seems to be immoral. To use the obvious analogy, if I am involved in a gun fight and I grab a child to use as a human shield, I am acting wrongly. After all, I am intentionally endangering an innocent to protect myself. If the child is hurt or killed, I clearly bear some of the moral blame. While my opponent should not endanger the child, I would rather limit her options if I kept attacking her while hiding behind the child.  Naturally, if I was shooting at her innocent children while using a child as a shield, I would certainly be acting very wrongly indeed.

One possible counter is that the analogy is flawed. In the child example, the child is coerced into serving as a shield. If the civilians support Hamas and freely allow themselves to be used as human shields, then Hamas would not be acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if I am in a gun fight and people volunteer to take bullets for me by acting as human shields, I would seem to be acting in a way that would be morally acceptable. As such, as long as the civilians are not coerced or kept in ignorance (that is, employed as shields by force or fraud), then it would seem that Hamas could be acting in a morally acceptable way.

There is, of course, a rather obvious concern. To go back to the gunfight analogy, suppose my fellows volunteer to serve as human shields while I shoot randomly at my opponent’s friends and family. If my opponent returns fire and hits one of my shields while trying to stop me, it would seem that my opponent would not be acting wrongly. After all, she is not trying to kill my shields—she is trying to stop me from shooting randomly at her friends and family.

This, of course, leads to another point of moral concern: Hamas fires rockets into populated areas as opposed to aiming at military targets. That is, Hamas seems intent on hurting random Israelis. One main argument in defense of Hamas is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as retribution for wrongs. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution. Of course, it must be shown that Israel has done wrong and that the retribution is proportional and justified.

However, the fact that Hamas is shooting rockets that randomly hurt people seems to remove the retribution justification from Hamas’ attack on Israel.  After all, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted on whoever happens to be at the receiving end of a rocket. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

One stock reply is that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent.  That is, they are fully accountable for whatever wrongs Israel has allegedly committed. However, being a member of a large group seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such random retribution. To use an analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the president of the university can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally starts randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars and that she defends her actions by pointing out that the students are associated with Big University and hence just targets of her retribution.

On the face of it, Sally’s justification seems absurd: the students are hardly accountable for the doings of the president. Likewise, one might argue, random people are unlikely to be accountable for any alleged misdeeds attributed to Israel.

One obvious counter is that being a citizen comes with moral accountability that would not hold in the case of students. A citizen of a democratic state, it can be argued, is responsible for what is done by her nation. After all, a citizen of a democracy has the right to elect officials and make decisions regarding the actions of the country. So, the rocket attacks could be just retaliation provided that the actions of the Israeli state warranted such retribution.

The obvious reply is that while citizens of a democratic state do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, it seems clear that every citizen does not bear the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who opposes violence or it could murder a child. Surely such people do not deserve death, whatever the alleged misdeeds of the country.

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.

As such, these random rocket attacks fired from within civilian areas seem to be morally wrong.

Naturally, a similar sort of argument can be applied to any cases in which Israeli attacks kill random people in Gaza. Or random attacks kill anyone anywhere.

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