Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Having won the election, it's tempting for hawks to drop the tiresome task of refuting bad anti-war arguments like this one:

My fifth and final reaction was: How can these Red States people cite moral values, yet ignore the immorality of a war that has caused the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people?

Or, again:

The next caller was a woman from Pennsylvania [who] stated that she simply couldn't understand the people who had voted for Bush: "These people want to control what happens in my bedroom, in my body, but they are A-OK with us having killed 100,000 Iraqis, and mounting. I just don't get them."

Let me help you understand: by rescuing Iraq from a murderous tyranny, we saved lives.

I can think of three rational and conscientious bases for opposition to the war: 1) a rigorous Gandhian pacifism; 2) an absolute emphasis on international law; 3) a belief that American foreign policy should strictly serve the US national interest. A Gandhian pacifist abjurs violence in all cases, event to prevent violence; an international-law absolutist believes that even to save lives we must not violate the sanctity of borders; and if you believe (as some conservatives do) that the government can only tax people to protect them and no one else-- well, fine, then the debate over Iraq focuses on the benefits and costs to America alone, and there's plenty to argue about there. But if human life is your chief value, you need to pay attention to facts like this:

Along with other human rights organizations, The Documental Centre for Human Rights in Iraq has compiled documentation on over 600,000 civilian executions in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that in one operation alone, the Anfal, Saddam killed 100,000 Kurdish Iraqis. Another 500,000 are estimated to have died in Saddam's needless war with Iran. Coldly taken as a daily average for the 24 years of Saddam's reign, these numbers give us a horrifying picture of between 70 and 125 civilian deaths per day for every one of Saddam's 8,000-odd days in power.

By contrast, taking at face value Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf's recent claims of 500 Iraqi civilian deaths since the start of the campaign we are left with the tragedy of 38 civilian deaths daily since the start of the war.

If regime change in Iraq resulted in a net loss of human life, we would have to try to value human life relative to human liberty. We would recall Patrick Henry's cry: "Give me liberty or give me death!" (or, for a contemporary variant, the Iraqi man in Voices of Iraq who declared "Now is better than under Saddam even if we die of hunger). We would ask whether we agree with it, and whether it is ever permissible to make that choice on behalf of others. We would weigh the future advantages of freedom for Iraqis' children against the present loss of those who would be killed. But, since the war saved net lives, an appraisal of the war doesn't require us to explore any of those questions.

By the way, I don't know for sure if the numbers above are reliable; or if, since they were written in April 2003, the facts have changed since. Maybe human rights groups overstated the deaths under Iraq (though the contrary is more likely). What's odd is that peaceniks never deal with the question. They just say "100,000 dead."

I was starting to draw the conclusion that maybe lefties just don't use reason, argument, evidence, maybe those are conservative values and we should stop trying to impose them on others and just accept that some people make decisions based on emotion, and tolerate them the way they are; and then liberals like Robert Reich started writing books entitled "Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America," and call for "reality-based" policy. So why doesn't the left occasionally attempt by the left to deal with the (powerful) arguments the right offers, rather than go on hoping that if they ignore them, they'll go away?

[UPDATE: All right, here's The Economist's review of the study that gave the "100,000" figure. On the one hand, the study does find an increase in the death rate, so if the study is correct it disconfirms my "Regime Change Saves Lives" header for this post, because it's an effort to compare the death rates before and after the war. On the other hand, it is certainly not true that we have killed a hundred thousand of Iraqis, or that the war has caused the deaths of hundreds-- plural-- of Iraqis. The study estimates that only (or "only") 60,000 died of violence; and that includes those that were killed by the insurgents, and of course it includes fighters as well as civilians. Which is still troubling.

This is by no means the last word; and of course, we may never know. We still don't know how many people died in the Holocaust. I suspect that a lot more people died under the regime than are being reported, because people are now freer to talk about those who died, so they're more likely to know. If a person was simply "disappeared" by Saddam, would their relatives know for sure? A more serious problem, statistically speaking, is that if Saddam killed a whole family, they wouldn't be around to answer the survey questions. ("The dead don't talk," as the saying goes.) I'll try to go into this moral question more in a future post.]


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