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Brian Wicker, 10.12.01

At the recent CCADD meeting with Nicholas Denyer on ‘Just War’ I raised a question which elicited some discussion. Suppose Osama bin Laden is spotted in a cave somewhere in the Hindu Kush, surrounded by his children. An anti-Taliban fighter has come near, armed with a bomb, and without warning has lobbed his bomb into the cave. The bomb was designed in such a way that it would kill everyone in a cave. It went off as it was designed to do, and everyone in the cave was killed. The question then is: did the soldier kill the children intentionally? Or to put the question another way: was what the soldier did an intentional act of killing the innocent? Or was it (as some people in the discussion suggested) just a ‘side-effect’ of the action, merely ‘collateral’?


To answer this question, we must assume several things, which are not in dispute among just war theorists: i) Osama himself was a legitimate target of lethal attack in self-defence because of overwhelming evidence of his crimes against humanity; ii) his children were innocents simply because they were children, doing no harm to anyone; iii) it is forbidden intentionally to kill any innocent person, even in war; iv) bringing about the deaths of innocents in war as side-effects of military operations, even when these deaths are foreseen as virtual certainties, can in certain circumstances be licit. So, were these circumstances applicable in this case?


I am supposing, purely for the sake of brevity, that the anti-Taliban fighter understands and accepts the Anscombian arguments about intention, which Denyer referred to in his paper. Without this assumption the dialogue could go on round in circles for ever, without producing any significant result. So to discover the fighter’s intention in acting in the way he did, it is necessary to ask:


‘Why did you lob the bomb?’


‘Because we had been told to do so if we found Osama.’


‘But you knew the children were there as well. You could have disobeyed orders and taken the consequences, so why didn’t you?’


‘Our orders were to kill Osama, if that was possible’.


‘But you killed the children as well. So you lobbed the bomb in order to kill the children too?’


‘No, I intended to kill only Osama. The deaths of the children were unintended side-effects of what I intentionally did.’


‘But you knew that if the bomb went off, it would kill everyone in the cave. So what you did was intentionally to bring about what the bomb was designed to bring about, namely the deaths of everybody in the cave, the children as well as Osama. So you did intend to kill the children.’


‘No, I intended to kill only Osama.’


‘You mean that you directed your intention only to the place where Osama was, avoiding directing your intention to the places where the children were? So you regard your intention as a kind of search light in your mind, by which you were able to pick out one person only, and leave the rest in the dark, even though the bomb itself could not make this distinction?’


‘No, this is an absurd theory of intention’.


‘Agreed. Nevertheless, you intentionally brought about the deaths of everybody in the cave, since this is what your bomb was designed to bring about, and you intentionally detonated it. So you intentionally brought about the deaths of the children, didn’t you?’


At this point, if the fighter says Yes, the argument is over: he admits he has intentionally killed the innocents. So to get off this hook he has to say No.


‘No. I intentionally brought about the death only of Osama. I did not intentionally bring about the deaths of the children. I had nothing against them! But throwing the bomb was the only way to get at Osama. I didn’t want to kill the children. I wished I had had a different sort of bomb, designed with a targeting mechanism which could pick out and kill just one individual in the cave and leave the rest alone. If I could, I would have used that’.


‘But you didn’t have such a bomb’.


‘No. So the only way to get at Osama was to throw in the one bomb I had.’


‘But your talk of its being the "only way" to get at Osama is ambiguous. Either you mean literally that the way to Osama was blocked by the children (perhaps they were sitting between you and him). If you had had a gun, you would then have had to shoot the children first in order to get at Osama later. But that would have meant that you would have intentionally shot the children. Alternatively, by your talk of "the only way" to get at Osama you may be meaning that killing everybody was the only method available for killing Osama. But saying that killing the children was part of the only available method for killing Osama, amounts to saying that killing them was part of the means you used for your end, namely killing Osama. And killing the innocent as a means even to a good end is itself forbidden’.


‘But killing the children was only part of what I did. That’s my point. I admit that the only means to the end of killing Osama included killing the children. But that does not necessarily mean that killing the children was the means to that end’.


‘So the killing of the children was included in the means you had to choose to kill Osama, but yet was somehow a separable part of that means? You have already admitted that killing the children was an unavoidable part of the means, or method. Now you seem to be contradicting yourself, by saying that killing the children was avoidable in some other sense of the word, a sense which gets you off the moral hook. What sense can this be, given that throwing the bomb and killing everybody was the only means you had? Are you saying that the means to killing Osama included several distinct actions, not all of which were intentional, so that killing the children could be described as a separate action from killing Osama: an action done with a different intention? If so, please describe this separate action’.


The fighter seems stumped by this request. The enquiry goes on:


‘Surely the fact is that, in killing Osama, you did nothing else, no other action, than throw the bomb into the cave! The bomb itself did the rest! Of course, the bomb’s own ‘action’ (if we can call it that), was not intentional, because bombs can’t have intentions. So we are back with the question: why did you do the one and only intentional action you performed, which was to throw the bomb? It was your intention in the one action of throwing the bomb that we need to elucidate. When you suggest that the means by which you killed bin Laden included killing the children, but in such a way that this included bit of what you did was not done with the same intention as the rest of the one and only action you did, how would you describe this included bit? Was the child-killing action just part of the larger action of killing everybody, in the way that (say) boiling the greens is part of the action of getting dinner ready? But then, boiling the greens is done with the intention of getting the dinner ready, so that example doesn’t help you. Or perhaps it’s like saying that pulling the trigger is ‘included’ in the action of shooting someone? But this example doesn’t help you either, since you can’t intentionally shoot anybody without intentionally pulling the trigger. Of course you can, in certain circumstances, describe the action of trigger pulling in such a way that it is not included in a larger action of shooting anybody. You could be intentionally fiddling with the trigger to find out how it worked, and were doing so with the gun pointing at somebody, who then got shot. But then killing that person would have been an accident. On the other hand, if your intention is to shoot somebody, then that is your intention in pulling the trigger. Pulling the trigger is not a side effect of the shooting: it is unavoidably ‘included’ in the act of shooting. Is this what you mean by ‘included’? Surely, when you threw the bomb into the cave, killing the children was not a side effect of killing Osama, but was ‘included’ in it, like pulling the trigger. But if this is the kind of thing you meant when you said that killing the children was unavoidably included in the killing of Osama, then you can’t say that killing the children was not intended.’


‘But killing the children was not like pulling the trigger in an act of shooting. The relation between the killing of the children and the killing of Osama was not like the relation between pulling the trigger and shooting the person’.


‘So you say: but what exactly is the difference? And how does this difference show that the intentional act of killing Osama did not ‘include’ your (allegedly unintentional) act of killing the children, even though everybody in the cave was killed by your one act of throwing the bomb?’


‘But as you say, I didn’t do more than one act, which was to throw the bomb. So my point is that I did not perform any action of killing the children at all. My only action was throwing the bomb, which resulted in the killing of Osama. The death of the children was not the result of any action of mine at all, but was merely the unintended side effect of my action.’


‘But their deaths were plainly the result of your one and only action, which was the throwing of the bomb.’


‘If it was a result, it was an unintended result.’


‘In what way was it unintended? Do you mean that you did not intend this result any more than you intended the falling of lumps of rock from the cave wall as a result of the bomb going off? But surely that can’t be so. You intended to bring about anything that the bomb was designed to bring about, and that included the falling of the rocks. It’s merely that the falling of the rocks was not in your mind when you threw the bomb: it didn’t matter to you. But surely you don’t claim that the deaths of the children didn’t matter to you in that way? If that were so, then you are certainly guilty of reckless disregard of human life, if not murder!’


The fighter seems stumped again. Has anybody got a good defence of him? Or is the fighter simply excusing himself by a piece of self-contradictory nonsense, like the excuse David Fisher quotes, in Morality and the Bomb p. 36 from Frank Richards (who had nearly thrown a bomb into a cave containing some innocents, but shouted a warning just in time): ‘If the young lady had not cried out when she did, we would have innocently murdered them all’ (my italics).