Among the problems involved in the “War on Terror” is trying to define exactly what constitutes terrorism. Some have claimed that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” a definition which egregiously neglects a consideration of methods and means (though one to which President Reagan apparently subscribed when he compared the CIA supported Nicaraguan Contras to the U.S. “Founding Fathers.”). In prosecuting the “War on Terror,” this administration has promoted a definition in which terrorists are separated from lawful combatants by their choice of targets. Terrorists deliberately target civilians in order to create a climate of fear. The United States are the bulwark against terrorism and barbarism. This distinction separates Us, a morally upright nation, from Them, craven cowards and underhanded evil bastards. We do not stoop to such deplorable tactics.
Or do we?
Lets put aside such deplorable mistakes as My Lai, which can plausibly be ascribed to a breakdown in communication and command rather than the implementation of conscious strategy. We can also put aside, for the sake of argument, the astoundingly high rate of “collateral damage” in U.S. military operations throughout the last century, as well as the chillingly casual acceptance of those unintentional civilian casualties. And we’ll ignore for now the regular slaughter of American Indian populations in the first century of our nation’s existence; we can hypothetically assume that our nation has grown morally since they committed those atrocities.
Even if we give the benefit of the doubt in all those cases, I am still left with two words.
Neither city was a military target. Both were chosen explicitly for their civilian populations. With bombing of those two cities, approximately 220,000 were killed—most instantly, though a number died slow, lingering deaths as a result of the radiation poisoning.
No one—not the military, not the civilian leadership, not the scientists and engineers involved—realized the unprecedented destructive power they were about to unleash. But ignorance is rarely a valid excuse, nor does it change the fact that they intended to use a powerful weapon against the civilian population.
(the fact that they were willing to use incendiary bombs to such devastating effect on Tokyo indicates that our leaders were less than deeply concerned with civilian casualties; though I am not including the Tokyo firebombings as terrorism because it was the seat of leadership in Japan, and therefore arguably a valid military target).
Accumulated evidence has lead some to make the case that the use of nuclear warfare was entirely unnecessary. These people, such Robert Freeman in his essay “Was the Atomic Bombing of Japan Necessary?“, argue that the Japanese were on the verge of absolute collapse, that they had already proposed to surrender, and that the Truman administration chose to use the atomic bomb in order to intimidate the Soviet Union.
But we can, for the sake of argument, accept conventional wisdom regarding the necessity of using atomic weapons. How different is that claim that we needed to deliberately target civilians in order to achieve our goal any different from that of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist?
This is not some far distant past event having nothing to do with us today. People alive in 1945 are still among us. Our leaders still refer to and claim lessons of World War II. But apparently not in this.
Is the difference scale? Violence committed with a few pounds of explosive is more terrorist than that committed with the equivalent of multiple thousands of tons of conventional explosives? Does the fact that the atomic bombs were delivered by an official nation mitigate any act of terrorism?
Necessary or not, the only rational conclusion based on the definition established by this administration is that our nation was the perpetrator of the two greatest single instances of terrorism in the entirety of world history.
No, this does not justify the terrorism of others, nor does it oblige us to endure terrorist attacks against us without resistance in atonement. Our nation has the right to legitimate self-defense against direct violence in whatever form. But it does suggest we might be careful to avoid self-righteousness in our condemnation of those who engage in terrorism.
This week has the dubious distinction of containing the anniversaries of both attacks. It is a good time to reflect on what might be in our own eye rather than obsessing on what is in the eye of others; to consider how we can promote peace instead of violence and destruction in any of its forms.
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Gar Alperovitz