Yesterday my friend and fellow columnist Mike Baker published an article on foxnews.com titled “Terrorists and Morality.” Treating us to his always entertaining and smart prose, Mike mused over “whether it was morally okay to be happy that the senior Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh had just been blown up in a car bomb in Damascus, Syria.”
Like a big brother brought in to take on the neighborhood bully, overnight I was flooded with messages from readers of his column asking me to offer a refutation on their behalf. Because I know Mike is always up for a spirited debate, I hereby acquiesce to their petition.
Mike begins by saying he held a party in his office on the day Mughniyeh was assassinated “with a banner, refreshments and everything” and declared a holiday for his staff, calling it “Mughniyeh Finally Got What He Deserved By Being Blown Straight To Hell Day.”
Some may reasonably get the impression from his article that Mike’s euphoria over Mughniyeh’s grizzly end is an emotive, knee-jerk reaction to pacifists who claim the moral high in their velvet glove treatment of terrorists. He writes, “Now, of course, there are loads of people who bang on about the values of our country and how treating even one terrorist improperly eats away at our principles and makes us less American."
But I know Mike’s insistence on jubilation is more than an emotional reaction. He’s a logical guy whose rationale has been informed by real-life experience. After 15 years as a covert CIA agent specializing in counterterrorism, Mike knows what happens when we don’t use necessary force to stop terrorist activity — lots of innocent people die, and he knew this way before it dawned upon the rest of us, on 9/11.
To his credit, Mike made the effort of explaining why he has no moral qualms about rejoicing over the demise of a terrorist. He begins well, but loses me in the end.
“Every human life starts out as precious; something to be treasured, valued and treated with dignity and respect.”
Right on, Mike.
“But then some of those lives veer off track, becoming murderers, pedophiles or in Mughniyeh’s case, a butchering terrorist with the blood of several hundred innocent people on his hands. At the point where these individuals choose to carry out heinous acts, they opt out of civilization and all those lofty, righteous ideals regarding the treatment of human life”
Yep, I’m with you, Mike — the unvarnished truth.
“That’s the point where I no longer feel a moral obligation to worry about how they are treated. If you choose to become a terrorist, I choose to view you as less than human. We’ve all got free will. Ain’t life grand?”
If I could agree with Mike on these last couple of sentences, I too would be happy to dance on the casket of Mughniyeh and friends. But Mike’s belief that people can lose their humanity — become “less than human” — is indefensible. It’s also dangerous for the flourishing of democracy and decency. Moral righteousness does not make or break our human nature. There are plenty of people who act like animals, but as hard as they try, they can neither shake their humanity nor the intrinsic dignity that resides therein.
But Mike’s moral intuition was not that far off. Respect for human dignity does not mean we should be soft on terrorism. If the only way to protect innocent life is to use force, then proportional force against an aggressor is not only acceptable, it’s usually morally imperative. If an intruder enters my home and is about to harm my wife and kids, I have every right (and obligation) to stop him. This principle is not contradictory to the respect for human dignity which we just described above. In this case of a house intruder, my objective is not the killing of a human being, but rather the defense of life. The former is an unfortunate consequence of the latter. If I am certain I can detain the assailant without maiming, or maiming without killing, respect for human dignity demands it. In real life, as Mike knows, that kind of certainty is a rare luxury, and almost inexistent when dealing with terrorists’ methods.
In my experience, working through this type of moral reasoning, as we have just done, modifies our instinctive sentiments of delight upon hearing of the death of very bad people. Instead of gloating in their personal demise, we rejoice in the end of their evil deeds and in the bravery of our defenders of justice. And even in this context of healthy celebration of victory of good over evil, our joy is dampened by the grim reality that a human being born for greatness chose instead the wide and easy road that leads to personal and societal perdition.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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P.S. No worries, I’ll be in New York next week and surely will clink glasses with Mike in honor of the good guys, of which he is one.
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