Jan 10, 2004 4:22 pm


Attacking regimes that don’t threaten us violates the libertarian prescription against the nondefensive use of force. I don’t mean to anthropomorphize states—to suggest that in the absence of a threat, attacking Iraq violates Iraq’s “rights.” “Iraq” is not a person and has no natural rights. But launching an assault against Iraq does violate individual rights on a massive scale. War--even modern war with laser-guided bombs and airdropped care packages--means rampant destruction and coercion. For that reason and others, libertarians have generally held that self-defense is the only legitimate reason for letting slip the dogs of war.

Even in a justified war of self-defense, innocents will die and rights will be trampled. In such a war—a necessary war—those deaths are unavoidable. If Saddam Hussein actually had the ability and the inclination to level an American city, then we'd have to regret the loss of innocent life, but recognize that we had no choice but to defend ourselves. We'd be in the position of the fellow in that"lifeboat ethics" scenario getting shot at by a madman with a machine gun in a crowd. We don't want to hit innocents when firing back, but in such cases, we’re following the first law of nature, self-preservation, and we didn't ask to be put in this situation. In the case of nondefensive wars of liberation, however, we're making a very different moral choice. We're saying, let's kill this group of people, so that this other, larger group of people may be free. Now, if group A is made up solely of Baath party higher-ups, then that sounds like a fair trade: killing the guilty to free the innocent. But our munitions aren’t nearly that accurate. The Associated Press reported in June that over 3,000 Iraqi civilians died in the month-long war against the Baathist regime. Civilian body counts are, of course, subject to manipulation by activists and advocacy groups. But one thing is clear—even a just war is a terrible engine of destruction and a threat to innocent life.

If individuals have rights, and if there are things no person or group may do to them without violating their rights, then how can it be legitimate for the United States government to" collaterally damage" hundreds or thousands of Iraqi civilians into oblivion because of the benefits our action will confer on the survivors? Who anointed us the world's God-like utility-maximizer--empowered to stride across the globe extinguishing some innocent lives so that other innocents might flourish?

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