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The difference between Us and Them

After terrorist bombings, it is required to stress how evil it is to target civilians, a barbarism without parallel in the modern world.

Yes, it is barbaric. But does it stand alone? Dropping atomic bombs on cities has, so far, thankfully, stood alone. Targeted destruction of ethnic groups by the millions has not happened too recently, although targeted destruction of hundreds of thousands is ongoing and causes mainly averted eyes (just like it did when it was millions). It seems like quite a stretch to insist that bombing tens, even thousands, of civilians is in a class by itself.

The main reason why there is no moral equivalence between terrorists and everyone else seems to be that Our mayhem is good, whereas Theirs is bad. Possibly, this is true. However, whether I was killed by a terrorist or a soldier in a clean uniform, I’d be just as dead. The only real difference, in practical rather than moral terms, is that right now my personal chance of being killed by a soldier is zero, but my chance of encountering terrorism is slightly greater than that. (I use the word “slightly” on purpose. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack, worldwide, is on the order of being struck by lighting: not zero, but also not much more. This is true post 9/11, post Madrid, post Beslan, and post London tube bombings.) I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the practical difference, not the moral one, that leads to much of the outrage about terrorism. The terrorists have succeeded in terrifying us, and we don’t like it.

The moral differences depend mainly on where one stands for their strength. The people standing under the bombs don’t like them, no matter who sent them. We target the enemy and define civilians as collateral damage. Terrorists, on the other hand, target the enemy and define civilians as the enemy. Civilians are not given the opportunity to reject either classification. Maybe that makes us better than them, but it is difficult to see by how much.

So what am I suggesting? That terrorism is okay? That it is just another tool in the eternal struggle to advance one rung up the ladder?


Just in case someone didn’t hear that, let me say it again. No.

What I am suggesting is that targeting civilians is not okay, whether it is done on purpose or accidentally-on-purpose. What I’m suggesting is that we preface all mention of miltant actions with sorrow and outrage for the people who died in them. What I am suggesting is that we expand our outrage over violent deaths to the point where PEOPLE STOP BEING KILLED.

Update: August 5th.

I just read the BBC quotes from the men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The following is from Dr Harold Agnew, now 85, who was a scientific observer on a chase plane of the Enola Gay.

[On working in the Manhattan Project:]
I describe myself as a ‘grunt’ at that time, I did what I was told to do. But I was part of a great undertaking.

[On the bomb:]
[We] were about four or five miles off to one side of Hiroshima, dropping gauges with parachutes that would measure the yield of the bomb. …

I don’t think anyone realised exactly what would happen. It was the only uranium bomb to be dropped.

My honest feeling at the time was that they deserved it, and as far as I am concerned that is still how I feel today.

People never look back to what led up to it – Pearl Harbour, Nanking – and there are no innocent civilians in war, everyone is doing something, contributing to the war effort, building bombs.

What we did saved a lot of lives in the long run and I am proud to have been part of it.

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