Suppose you knew that a man in a nearby neighborhood routinely beat his family and had murdered several of his neighbors with impunity. Seeing that the authorities were doing nothing about it, you took it upon yourself to organize a posse. You gave the men in your posse orders to capture or kill the evil man, doing their best to avoid hurting innocent bystanders. The men followed your orders and ended up capturing your quarry, but in the process they killed 50 of his neighbors. You and your posse were later arrested for these murders. What would your defense be?
You might say this: 'Your Honor, I did indeed order these men, who volunteered for duty, to go in and capture or kill this evil man who was doing so much harm to his family and neighbors. I gave them strict orders to try to minimize casualties among innocent bystanders. Unfortunately, sometimes these accidents occur when pursuing criminals, and innocent people get killed. Besides, aren't the people of the neighborhood'of all neighborhoods, in fact'better off now that this man is no longer able to terrorize them? Yes, 50 people lost their lives, but the hundreds in that neighborhood who survived are now better off because of our actions. Sometimes small sacrifices have to be made for the greater good.'
How well do you think that would go over? Even in our severely screwed up justice system of today, it seems highly unlikely that such a defense would succeed in obtaining a verdict of 'not guilty' or even a reduced sentence.
The reason it would fail is that humans instinctively understand that the end does not justify the means. No matter how noble one's objective, one may not violate others' rights to life, liberty, and property in pursuit of that objective.
The problem arises when one begins to believe that one's objective is indeed so vital that ordinary rules of right and wrong can be suspended in order to bring about a better world in the end.
War supporters, having seen their pre-war justifications for invasion'Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and connections with al-Qaeda'go up in smoke, have been reduced to arguing precisely this. Of late they have taken the tack that (a) the Iraqi people are better off without Saddam Hussein, (b) the election in Iraq proves that the Iraqis are free and better off, and (c) the election has set off a domino effect of democracy throughout the region; therefore, the deaths of 1,500 Americans and anywhere from 16,000 to 100,000 Iraqis are 'worth it' to achieve these wonderful results. They have also taken to crowing that liberals from Chicago to London are beginning to question their own opposition to the war on the basis of these allegedly outstanding outcomes.
Now it is not at all clear that the Iraqis will be better off in the long run as a result of Saddam Hussein's removal from power. (For that matter, it's not clear that they're better off in the short run: the State Department recently cited a multitude of human rights abuses by the U.S.-installed interim Iraqi government, including torture, rape, and illegal detentions.) Iraqi democracy could bring to power a radical Islamic government that would make Saddam Hussein look like Jimmy Carter. If the U.S. ever withdraws from Iraq 'and possibly even if it doesn't'another dictator could come to power. The Allies, after all, liberated Eastern Europe from Hitler in World War II, but to stop there and declare their actions a complete success would be foolish. In the end, Eastern Europe was simply transferred from one oppressive government to another. The same could very well end up being true of Iraq .
Also, it is not the case that democracy and freedom are equivalent. In fact, as Ilana Mercer put it, freedom is 'when elections don't matter. I'll consider myself free when I no longer must fret about who wins my state's endless election for governor . . . . Or when I can sleep through a federal election, because, Kerry or Bush, Democrat or Republican'in a free society neither will be able to unjustly tamper with me or take what is rightfully mine.' The election in Iraq'or the elections now slated to occur in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, all supposedly grand evidence of the success of George W. Bush's visionary foreign policy'is no more a marker or guarantor of freedom than is the existence of a constitution. What if the elections should sweep into power radical Islamic and anti-American governments, or even just plain old garden variety despots? Let us not forget that Hitler came to power via democracy.
Nevertheless, let us assume for the sake of argument that the hawks', and now some doves', reasons for supporting the war are truly as good as they claim. Let's assume that Iraq is genuinely free and that we will witness a birth of freedom in the broader Middle East . Does this then justify the illegal invasion of a country that had done us no harm and had no capacity to do us harm? Does it justify the aforementioned deaths of Americans and Iraqis?
Apparently most so-called conservatives think so. One local talk show host quite bluntly said that the rightness or wrongness of the decision to invade will have to be judged on the basis of how everything turns out in the long run. In other words, the end, if 'good' enough, will justify the means.
In an irony worthy of O. Henry, I direct you to an article on the website of Victor Davis Hanson, one of the chief promoters of an expansive American empire, to refute this very notion. In this review of Oliver Stone's film 'Alexander,' Bruce Thornton writes:
Instead, Stone gives us the visionary Alexander, the great idealist who pursues his vision until he burns out, and whose excesses are the lamentable byproducts of such noble ambition. And here's the most illuminating point about this forgettable movie: once more we see the left's romantic admiration of any mass-murderer who cloaks his slaughter in idealism. Wasn't it Lenin who said you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs? The 'omelet' of Communist idealism took, as we now know, 100 million dead human beings, and ended up inedible anyway. But that hasn't stopped the left from continuing to excuse murder on the grounds of 'idealism,' provided it comes from the left (after all, Nazis were idealists too). Thus Stalin, Ho Chi Min, Mao and Castro continue to be more popular on college campuses than Ronald Reagan, and ex-terrorists like Bill Ayres and Bernadette Dohrn are professors at taxpayer-funded universities.
These days, of course, it is the (faux) right which celebrates the 'idealism' of George W. Bush 'who pursues his vision . . . and whose excesses [which the right today doesn't even see as excesses, instead cheering on mass murder known euphemistically as war] are the lamentable byproducts of such noble ambition.' Yes, he may have had to kill hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis to achieve his ideals, but 'you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.' At least in this case, say the war pushers, the omelet will be edible, even delicious. (Would they have excused the Communists if the Soviet Union had turned out to be the workers' paradise its idealistic founders promised?) The fact that some leftists are now beginning to agree with the rightists only proves that the distance between 'left' and 'right' today is exceedingly small. Both are statists who consider other human beings obstacles to the achievement of their earthly utopias.
In the end it all comes down to your view of human beings and their worth. If you believe that every human life is of the highest value and that no one's rights to life, liberty, and property may be rightfully infringed, then you will recognize that, just as it was wrong to kill 50 innocent people in pursuit of the quite laudable goal of capturing a neighborhood criminal, so it is wrong to kill even one innocent person, let alone tens of thousands, in pursuit of the also quite laudable goal of bringing freedom to the world. If, on the other hand, you believe that there are exceptions to the rule, that some human rights and lives occasionally have to be sacrificed for the greater good, then you might very well be inclined to support the notion that a few broken lives are acceptable to create the delectable omelet of a perfect, or at least better, world. If so, please say hi to Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot for me. I don't intend ever to run into them.