It is a curious phenomenon that misery, death and widespread destruction of property is mourned when it comes as the result of a natural disaster, or at the hands of a tyrannical foreign government, yet is callously disregarded when undertaken as part of the military pursuits of the United States government. Humanitarian aid and relief efforts so prominent in the wake of events like Hurricane Katrina or genocide in Darfur are not even an afterthought in response to millions of displaced Iraqis or sick and starving Iranians. To the contrary, these occasions of mass human suffering are cheered and celebrated as victories by the large majority of Americans, to the extent they are even aware of them.
One need only look to mainstream news outlets for further evidence of this moral decay. Horrible conditions that would be daily front-page headlines were they the result of an earthquake are easily ignored when they are caused by our government. What is it that exists in the psyche of a population that allows the bulk of its inhabitants to turn a blind eye to these conditions so long as they are taking place in far off lands and done as part of government sanctioned war strategy?
One of the few people to publicly challenge this mindset is Ron Paul. Paul has attempted to teach Americans about a foreign policy based on the Golden Rule–that one should treat others as he would like others to treat him. Paul has used the hypothetical scenario of Chinese troops patrolling the streets of Texas under the auspices of "safety", "promoting democracy", and "protecting strategic interests". What, he asks, would Americans do in response to such a Chinese occupation? Although this kind of talk regularly elicits criticism from Republican and Democratic audiences alike, Paul says that many have expressed that this part of his message has been more enlightening than any other.
While it is important to look at American foreign policy through the eyes of non-Americans, it is even more important to look at such state action abroad in the same light as individual action. In his essay, War, Peace, and the State, Murray Rothbard does just that, applying the same principles to war as would be applied to two feuding individuals. In doing so, he deals the state a devastating blow. Rothbard begins by stating the obvious–that it is perfectly just for an individual, Jones, finding that he or his property is being attacked by Smith, to employ self-defense against Smith. Everyone would agree, however, that Jones would not be justified in using violence against innocent third parties in attempting to catch Smith. For instance, if Jones’s valuables are being stolen by Smith, he has every right to use force to attempt to repel or catch Smith, but he does not have the right to repel or catch Smith by indiscriminately spraying machine gun fire into a crowded shopping mall where Smith hides. Doing so would clearly make Jones as much a criminal aggressor as Smith.
Understanding such a simple and obvious truth, then, we must ask why identical criminal behavior such as that described in Rothbard’s example suddenly becomes not only justified, but glorified, when done by the state. Why would Jones’s behavior be plainly understood to all as murder, yet when done on an enormous scale by the state, not considered the same or worse? Therein lies the veil that the state has so successfully managed to hide behind.
In the recent debate over the American use of drone warfare, critics demanded to know from the Obama administration whether it believed that it could use deadly force against an American terrorist suspect on American soil. Could the military, the critics asked, send a Hellfire missile into an American cafe where a suspected terrorist sat? The Obama administration and its supporters dismissed such questions as the paranoid rantings of conspiracy theorists. To imagine any American government, let alone the current one, employing such murderous tactics was simply too far-fetched to justify an answer. It had never occurred to them that such questions were perfectly reasonable considering the frequency with which they use identical tactics around the world.
It is a positive sign that many Americans appeared outraged by the Obama administration’s inability to answer such a simple question, but it remains troubling to read the results of surveys which reveal that only about a quarter of Americans disapprove of the taking of innocent lives overseas, be they at a cafe, a funeral or gathered at a barbecue. As the nineteenth century peace activist Elihu Burritt observed, "[w]ar seems to reverse our best and boasted civilization, to carry back human society to the dark ages of barbarism, to cheapen the public appreciation of human life almost to the standard of brute beasts." The desensitization described by Burritt is as strong as ever today, as wars are judged based on their financial cost and "strategic objectives", but not their death tolls.
Not until more people begin to apply the universal truths that govern our individual behavior to state officials will this barbaric tide recede. Until then, the world must continue to live under the moral code of the state, which says that killing is okay when done by the American government.