Do We Have the Right to Kill the Children of Iraq?

This was an article I wrote in the Guardian just before the outbreak of the Iraq war. It links the issues with the medical ethics teaching I do.

The approach of the Guardian article draws on ideas I worked out in a 1977 book, Causing Death and Saving Lives.

I have spent the last few years discussing medical ethics with students who are often doctors or nurses. Their work often involves them in life and death decisions. Our discussions have reminded me of what many of us experience when we are close to someone in acute medical crisis. When a parent is dying slowly in distress or indignity, or when a baby is born with such severe disabilities that life may be a burden, the family and the medical team agonize over whether to continue life support. No-one finds such a decision easy or reaches it lightly. What is at stake is too serious for anyone to rush the discussion.

It is hard not to be struck by the contrast between these thoughtful and painful deliberations and the hasty way people think about a war in which thousands of people will be killed. The people killed in an attack on Iraq will be people not so different from those in hospital whose lives we treat so seriously. Some of them will be old men or old women. Many babies and children will be killed. To think of just one five year old Iraqi girl who may die in this war as we would think of that same girl in a medical crisis is to see the enormous burden of proof on those who would justify killing her. Decisions for war seem less agonizing than the decision to let a girl in hospital die. But only because anonymity and distance numb the moral imagination.

Questions about war are not so different from other life and death decisions. War kills many people, but each has a life no more to be lightly destroyed than that of a child in hospital. This moral seriousness of killing is reflected in the ethics of war. If a war is to be justified, at least two conditions have to be met. The war has to prevent horrors worse than it will cause. And, as a means of prevention, it has to be the last resort. Killing people should not be considered until all alternative means have been tried and have failed.

Those supporting the proposed war on Iraq have claimed that it will avert the greater horror of terrorist use of biological or nuclear weapons. But this raises questions not properly answered. It is not yet clear whether Iraq even has these weapons, or whether their having them would be more of a threat than possession by other countries with equally horrible regimes like North Korea. No good evidence has been produced of any link to terrorist groups. Above all, there is no evidence of any serious exploration by the American or British governments of any means less terrible than war. Is it impossible to devise some combination of diplomacy and continuing inspection to deal with any possible threat? Is killing Iraqis really the only means left to us?

The weak answers given to these questions by the two governments proposing war explain why they have persuaded so few people in the rest of Europe or even in this country. It is heartening how few are persuaded by claims about intelligence too secret to reveal, or by the attempts to hurry us into war by leaders who say their patience is exhausted. We would never agree to removing the baby’s life support on the basis of medical information too confidential for the doctor to tell us. Still less would we accept this because the doctor’s patience has run out. It really does seem that this time many of us are thinking about war with something like the same seriousness.

There is an extra dimension to the decision about this particular war. The choice made this time may be one of the most important decisions about war ever made.

This is partly because of the great risks of even a “successful” war. The defeat even of Saddam Hussein’s cruel dictatorship may contribute to long term enmity and conflict between the West and the Islamic world. In what is widely thought in the Islamic world to be both an unjustified war and an attack on Islam, an American victory may be seen as an Islamic humiliation to be revenged. This war may do for our century what 1914 did for the twentieth century. And there is an ominous sense of our leaders, as in 1914, dwarfed by the scale of events and sleepwalking into decisions with implications far more serious than they understand.

The other reason for the special seriousness of the decision about this war has to do with the dangerous world September 11th has made us see that we live in. That day showed how much damage even a low-tech terrorist attack can do. The most heavily armed country was like a bull, able to defeat any other bull it locked horns with, but suddenly unable to defend itself against a swarm of bees. All countries are vulnerable to such low-tech attacks. Combining this thought with the proliferation of biological weapons, and possibly of portable nuclear weapons, suggests a very frightening world.

This dangerous world is often seen as part of the argument in support of the war. If we don’t act now, won’t the problem, as Tony Blair said, “come back to haunt future generations”? But further thought may raise doubts about whether the dangerous world of terrorism and proliferation really counts for the war rather than against it.

The frightening world we live in is like the “state of nature” described by Thomas Hobbes. What made life in the state of nature “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” was the strength of the reasons people had to fight each other. There was no ruler to keep the peace. So everyone knew the strong would attack the weak for their possessions. But the instability was worse than this. My fear of attack by you gives me a reason for a pre-emptive strike against you before you get strong enough to start. But my reason for a pre-emptive strike against you in turn gives you a reason for a pre-emptive strike against me. And so the spiral of fear and violence goes on. Hobbes thought the only solution was the creation of Leviathan, a ruler with absolute power. Such a ruler could impose a peace otherwise unobtainable. The dangers of tyranny and injustice are outweighed by the dangers of a world where no-one has power to impose peace.

Our present international world seems alarmingly like the Hobbesian state of nature. Nations (and perhaps at least as frighteningly, small groups like Al Quaida) have many motives for attack and our protection is flimsy. The pure Hobbesian solution to this would be a social contract between all such states and groups giving all power to one to act as absolute ruler. This is unlikely to happen. But there is a naturally evolving equivalent. Sometimes one dominant power emerges, and imposes Pax Romana or Pax Britannica or in our time Pax Americana. The Hobbesian suggestion is that, as the way out of the law of the jungle, we should welcome the emergence of a superpower that dominates the world.

In his book Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant saw that the Hobbesian solution was not the best possible. The Hobbesian ruler has no moral authority. His only claim to impose peace is his strength. Conflict is not eliminated, but suppressed by sheer strength. If the ruler grows weak, the conflict will surface again.

This applies to the international world. A superpower with an empire may suppress conflict. But, as Pax Romana and Pax Britannica remind us, empires fall as well as rise. Such a peace is unlikely to last for ever. And empires act at least partly out of self-interest, so the imposed arrangements may not be just. Palestinians, for instance, may be unhappy to entrust their future to Pax Americana. But absolutely central is the lack of moral authority of anything imposed by force. To put it crudely, no-one appointed the United States, or the United States and Britain, or NATO, to be world policeman.

Kant’s solution was a world federation of nation-states. They would agree to give the federation a monopoly of the use of force. This use of force would have a moral authority derived from its impartiality and from its being set up by agreement. In the present world, the Kantian solution might be a proper UN police force, with adequate access to funds and to force of overwhelming strength. There would have to be agreed criteria for its intervention, together with a court to interpret those criteria and to authorize intervention. There are many problems with this solution. But something like it is the only way of policing the global village with impartiality and authority. It is the only hope of permanently bringing to an end the cycle of violence.

A central decision of our time is between these two ways of trying to keep the peace in the global village. In a Hobbesian village, violence is quelled by a posse rounded up from the strongest villagers. It is a Texas cowboy village, or a Sicilian village with Mafia gangs. In a Kantian village, there is a strong police force, backed up by the authority of law and the courts. The Kantian village may seem utopian. But there are reasons for thinking it is not impossible. In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe gave the world colonialism, genocide and two world wars. Then it would have seemed utopian to think of the present European Union. Through pressure of experiencing the alternative, a federation did come about. With luck, Kant's proposal may come about because we see the importance of not experiencing what is likely to be a really terrible alternative.

For all its inadequacies, the UN is the embryonic form of the rule of law in the world. This is another reason why the proposed war could be so disastrous. Every time Mr. Bush or Mr. Blair say they will not be bound by a Security Council veto, without knowing it they are Hobbesians. Never mind moral authority. We, the powerful, will decide what happens. If we want to make a pre-emptive strike, we will do so. And we will listen to the UN provided it says what we tell it to say.

Some of us fear the instability of a world of unauthorized pre-emptive strikes. We hope our precarious situation may nudge world leaders further towards the rule of law, towards giving more authority and power to the UN. The alternative is terrifying. This gives an extra dimension of menace to the attitude of the American and British governments to this crisis. The erosion of the world’s attempt at international authority is something to add to the cruelty and killing of this lawless war we are being asked to support.