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Are Foreign Lives of Equal Worth to Ours?

by Adil E. Shamoo

When a U.S. civilian is murdered in a foreign land or in the United States, we rightfully feel angry, sad, and some of us demand vengeance. These are normal, primordial, and instinctive feelings of group loyalty and herd mentality that have bound communities and countries for thousands of years. Should such human traits, which are often beneficial, emotional and irrational, continue to justify the retaliatory killing of innocent civilians in the 21st century?

After the tragic murder of nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens on 9/11, the United States toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and killed and captured hundreds of al-Qaeda leaders and members. However, Afghanistan lost as many as 32,000 citizens since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was followed immediately by a plan to invade Iraq and topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The invasion went ahead despite the inconclusive evidence that Iraq posed any immediate threat to the United States or was involved in 9/11. In the years and months following the invasion, evidence that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction and was not involved in the 9/11 attacks has become distressingly clear. Iraq by all accounts has suffered a few hundred thousand deaths, a million wounded, and the destruction of its infrastructure for economics, health, and education.

The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq continues on a massive scale. We still have nearly 200,000 troops and contractors in the two countries. The argument is that our enemy is still plotting to kill us here in the United States and elsewhere. The plan seems to be to keep retaliating and punishing the plotters in both countries to force them to submit to our will. In the process, whether it is admitted or not, we have killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians not involved in trying to kill us.

More recently, the United States is trying to lessen the number of civilians killed or injured.

How do Afghan and Iraqi civilians view the injuries or deaths of tens of thousands of their countrymen and women? How do they view the continued killing and wounding of hundreds or thousands of non-combatants? How would we view this number deaths and injuries among our own population As citizens of the United States, we face the moral obligation to not only understand the tragedy of the loss of civilians, as U.S. President Barak Obama declares, but to reduce to a minimum or eliminate civilian deaths, if at all possible. Every innocent civilian killed or wounded in Afghanistan and in Iraq has a mother, father, sister, or brother, and in these close-knit tribal communities many more who are considered very close relatives. The families and friends of those harmed in these conflicts could carry with them the need for vengeance for decades to come.

More recently, we have entered a covert and overt war against the Taliban in Pakistan. In Pakistan, a country in which the United States is not officially at war, U.S. actions and offensives have killed and wounded a large number of Pakistani civilians. The high civilian death toll is in part a consequence of the Taliban living and hiding with the people of Pakistan in dense urban centers. The killing and wounding of innocent Pakistanis is also troubling because Pakistan is a large country with nuclear weapons. The killing of innocent Pakistanis will result in increased hatred and cries for revenge that is becoming a part of Pakistan cultural norms. This situation could destabilize the country and put the safety of the nuclear arsenal at risk.

The United States needs to face the moral paradox that stems from the lack of regard for Afghan and Iraqi lives in comparison with the value placed on the lives and safety of those living in the United States.

As U.S. citizens, we value the lives of our fellow countrymen many fold over the lives of other citizens. How else could we allow our government to continue this policy of killing and wounding our opponents in such disproportion to the number of casualties of U.S. troops and contractors for nearly nine years after 9/11.

I know that there will be loud protest of this view. However, we need to remember that the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes the equal worth of all human beings across the globe.

The U.S. military has achieved a killing machine that is less encumbered by popular views of war than at other times in our history. The military has mechanized and contracted out the war machinery in order to minimize the impact on U.S. citizens. The mechanization of the war can be potentially beneficial to individuals, but also very dangerous to our democracy.

This mechanization of war has also resulted in treating other nations' citizens as less than equal to citizens of the United States. U.S. military actions kill innocent civilians in a repeated and almost routine manner. However, modern communications are informing people around the world that U.S. policies value other citizens less than its own. The human instinct of herd mentality can't serve as justification for the indiscriminate killing of civilians outside U.S. borders.

Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst at Foreign Policy In Focus, and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy. He can be reached at: ashamoo@umaryland.edu.

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