Letter to the New York Timesby Howard Zinn; NYT; August 21, 2007
To the Editor:
Samantha Power has done extraordinary work in chronicling the genocides of our time, and in exposing how the Western powers were complicit by their inaction.
However, in her review of four books on terrorism, especially Talal Asad’s “On Suicide Bombing” (July 29), she claims a moral distinction between “inadvertent” killing of civilians in bombings and “deliberate” targeting of civilians in suicide attacks.
Her position is not only illogical, but (against her intention, I believe) makes it easier to justify such bombings.
She believes that “there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective.” Of course, there’s a difference, but is there a “moral” difference? That is, can you say one action is more reprehensible than the other?
In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were “unintentional” or “inadvertent” or “accidental,” as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.
These words are misleading because they assume an action is either “deliberate” or “unintentional.” There is something in between, for which the word is “inevitable.”
If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not “intentional.”
Does that difference exonerate you morally?
The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.