Just finished watching the first Season of ` Homeland’.
An established terrorist Abu Nazir is holed up in the mountains of Northern Iraq, in a compound with hundred odd kids. He is a high value target, posing a clear and imminent threat to the United States, and his location has been positively identified. The discussion at CIA HQ Langley on how to take him down is animated. A ground attack is ruled out as being too dangerous. A drone strike would entail considerable collateral damage – 100 odd kids in this case.
The dilemma is genuine. Finally, the Vice President speaks up. “If Abu Nazir chooses to shelter behind children”, he says, “it is HE who’s putting them at risk, not us!”
He picks up the phone, and orders the drone strike. 83 children, including Abu Nazir’s own ten year old son Issa, are killed in the strike. Abu Nazir himself escapes. Looking at the carnage, he is overwhelmed. “And they call us terrorists!” he mutters.
Got me thinking. What would I have done in their place? Drone strikes kill hundres of innocents – women and children - in Pakistan. Israeli air strikes kill Palestinian children by the scores.
Are such attacks justifiable in the interest of the ` larger good’? If Abu Nazir had been killed in the strike, would his death have saved thousands of lives? If so, would the deaths of the 83 children have been justified?
A related question. In order to extract information from a suspect - information that may potentially save many lives - is torture (ok, enhanced interrogation techniques) justified? This, I feel, is less of an existential dilemma than the above. I would have no compunction in resorting to these methods, quite simply because I believe that since terrorists are not humans, they deserve no compassion or human rights consideration.
The old adage of `one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter’ is just so much bullshit. If there was one positive fallout from 9/11, it is that the use of terror as a political weapon was no longer justifiable. A suicide bomb does not distinguish between caste, creed, gender and age.
Deployed on Counter Insurgency operations in Nagaland, we were appalled when the insurgents we captured at considerable risk to our own life and limb, were freed by the courts in a matter of months, and were back to attack us with renewed vigour. Rules of engagement, niceties of war did not apply to them, and they were merciless in their means. So what does one do? Simple. Make sure the buggers never reached the courts at all! Justice Ranganath Mishra, the then Chairman of the Human Rights Commission was content to merely shrug his shoulders. “Just make sure there are no custodial deaths”, he warned us, “those are difficult to explain”.
So back to my original question. Is collateral damage acceptable in the interest of the `larger good’? Assuming that terrorists use women and children as human shields, is the killing of these innocents justified (the `it-is-they-who-put-them-at-risk-not-us’ argument)?
There are no easy answers.
But personally, if there is one thing that I cannot stomach, one thing that tears me up, it is the sight of a child suffering. The clips from Gaza and Waziristan have made me lose more sleep that I care to remember. Nothing can ever justify the wail or tears of a ten year old with shrapnel wounds, or a kid maimed for life by anti personnel mine.
Nothing. Just NOTHING!