Friday, July 25, 2014

The morality of the response to the human shield tactic

The current Gaza conflict has raised an important question: Who is to blame for the death of civilians? Is it Hamas, as it allegedly uses civilians as human shields, or is it the Israeli army? Since the definitions of a human shield can me quite stretchy, let us use the strictest possible definition in the following hypothetical example.

Suppose Jim physically restrains Janis, puts her between himself and Kurt, and then starts shooting at Kurt. The only way Kurt can shoot back at Jim is if he shoots Janis first.

When Kurt kills Janis, is it Kurt or Jim the person we should blame for Janis's death? One might argue that it is Jim who is morally responsible because if he had not used Janis as a human shield, Kurt would not have to defend himself and kill Janis.

But, while it is Jim who decided to use Janis as a human shield, he did not make the decision whether Janis will live or die. It is Kurt that made that decision. Kurt chose to save his own life by ending Janis's. He chose that outcome instead of the alternative: letting Jim kill him. If Kurt let Jim kill him, then Jim would be morally responsible for Kurt's death AND for restraining Janis against her will, but obviously not for her death, since she would still be alive. While Kurt is perfectly free to choose his own death, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he does not have the right to choose whether someone else will live or die.

Obviously, Janis did nothing to deserve being killed, so we can't derive Kurt's right to kill her from anything Janis did. Also, we can't derive Jim's right to Kill Janis from something someone else, including Jim, did. If we were to derive Kurt's right to kill Janis from a third person's actions, we would put Janis at the mercy of a third person. Would you want that someone's right to kill you be conditional on something I do when you have absolutely no way of controlling my actions?

If we claim that Kurt is not morally responsible for Janis's death, we are also claiming that Kurt had a moral obligation to save his own life. In other words, we are claiming that, had he not defended his own life, he would have done something morally wrong. Or, by defending himself he was trying avoid doing something wrong, which is choosing to be killed. Is it morally wrong to choose to be killed? I don't think it is. In fact, most of us think it is heroic to sacrifice one's own life for the sake of saving someone else's. On the other hand, most of us think it is selfish to take someone's else's life in order to save one's own life.

Instead of concluding, it would be useful to stress that both Jim and Kurt have choices to make, but Janis is completely helpless. Jim has the power to decide whether Kurt will live or die, and Kurt has the power to decide whether Janis and Jim will live or die. Therefore, the correct questions are:

1. Does Jim have the right to restrain Janis?
My answer - No, and therefore Jim is guilty of restraining Janis.

2. Does Jim have the right to choose whether Kurt will live or die?
My answer - No, and therefore Jim is guilty of Kurt's death if Kurt refuses to shoot, and Jim kills him.

3. Does Kurt have the right to choose whether Janis will live or die? My answer - No, and therefore Kurt is guilty of Janis's death if he chooses to shoot.

4. Does Kurt have the right to choose whether Jim will live or die?
My answer - Yes, and therefore Kurt is not guilty of Jim's death if he (Kurt) chooses to defend himself.





2 comments:

  1. I think this is a good way to understand the situation. However, I think your analogy can be tweaked to better reflect the actual conditions surrounding this conflict.

    0. Your story makes it seem as though Jim is the aggressor against both Janis and Kurt. A better way to start the story would be "Kurt has imprisoned Jim and Janis, and then starts shooting at Jim." This raises the question: if Jim uses Janis as a human shield, and Kurt then shoots at both Janis and Jim, and Janis dies in the crossfire, does one party bare sole responsibility for her death? My answer is no: regardless of whose bullet it was that killed Janis, both Jim and Kurt bare partial responsibility for her death because they each chose to put her directly in harm's way.

    1. Does Jim have the right to restrain Janis?
    I agree with your answer: no.

    2. Does Jim have the right to choose whether Kurt will live or die?
    Given my reframing of the question above, I disagree with your answer: yes, because Kurt was the aggressor: first by imprisoning Kurt, then by shooting at him. (Of course, if you don't accept my reframing, and insist that Jim is not imprisoned and was the first to shoot, then then my answer will be the opposite.)

    3. Does Kurt have the right to choose whether Janis will live or die? I agree with your answer: no.

    4. Does Kurt have the right to choose whether Jim will live or die?
    Like 2., I disagree under my terms that Kurt was the initial aggressor.

    Also, a couple more questions arise if we assume Janis survives this ordeal:

    5. Does Janis have the right to choose whether Jim will live or die?
    Yes, as Jim's actions put her life directly at risk.

    6. Does Janis have the right to choose whether Kurt will live or die?
    Even disregarding the fact that Kurt has unjustly imprisoned Janis, by shooting at her when she is not aggressing against him, he is unjustly threatening her existence.

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  2. Great analogy! I would like to add that under the condition that Kurt imprisoned both Jim and Janis, she (Janis) has the right to kill Kurt as the original aggressor as well as to kill Jim who is using her as a human shield. She doesn't fight against any of them because she obviously has no means of achieving her freedom through violence. If she did have reasonable means to fight, she would rather fight Kurt, as he is the original aggressor (read: the cause of all the violence and loss of Janis's freedom)

    Now, let's put all that information into perspective: if Kurt were to end his aggression against the two (in Israel's case: ends the occupation), there would be no excuse for Jim to act against Kurt. More importantly, any sympathy that Janis may have had towards Jim (due to being comiserators - together suffering at Kurt's hand) would then quickly be gone. In fact, she now might turn against Jim if he choses to continue violent struggle against his former oppressor, because Janis simply wants peace. So in that sense, if Israel were to unilaterally end occupation there would be no real reason for Hamas's existence. It would quickly end its violence against the state of Israel, any of its most extreme members who wished to continue the struggle would be isolated by their own population, and it (Hamas) would eventually cease to exist altogether.

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