Shlicha's/Shaliach's View

Shaliach’s view: Avoiding collateral damage — your moral choice scenario

Imagine the following horrible scenario: an armed group of 100 snipers takes over a main building in downtown Tucson; they shoot people walking on the streets. The entire downtown area is shut down; people are locked in their offices across the city and can’t go home.

Guy Gelbart

Assume that you are the police chief, what do you do? Keep in mind, this is not the case of one sniper; we are dealing with a well-armed, well-trained group. Clearly you can’t just ignore the situation. As the police chief, protecting your citizens is not just a choice, it is your moral obligation.

Do you send your police teams to raid the building, risking a significant number of potential casualties? Do you get police snipers to try and shoot down the hostile gunmen? Who do you define as a legitimate target? The men in the building do not wear uniforms; how do you identify them? Would you count as a legitimate target only those who hold weapons or also those who assist them, like the scout on the roof or the guy that smuggles ammunition to them? What about the commander of the group — is he a legitimate target even if he does not physically hold a weapon?

How many of them would you shoot down? Would you shoot one, two or whatever it takes to stop them from shooting innocent citizens? Let’s assume they already murdered three people, would you limit your sniper to shooting only three of them? Does that type of body-count math make any sense as a moral measurement? Should you allow them to murder more citizens before you use all your power to make them stop? Would you consider destroying the building they’ve seized? What if they have hostages? How do you judge a “proportional reaction”? How do you measure collateral damage, the damage to innocent bystanders? Obviously you want to avoid collateral damage as much as you can.

These theoretical questions were the real-life questions during Israel’s recent Operation Pillar of Defense. The Israeli government had to deal with the very complicated moral challenge of protecting its citizens from Palestinian terrorist groups who were shooting thousands of rockets, using their own population as human shields. Rockets were shot from schools and heavily populated neighborhoods.

The current war against terror is very different from any war ever before. The enemy is not clearly identified and does not have one chain of command. There is no distinction between the front lines and the home front. The heroes of this war and the true victims are civilians. Moral dilemmas were handled by every Israel Defense Forces soldier on a daily basis. This was a disproportional war, not just by measure of firepower but mainly by measure of moral obligations. A war between the IDF — morally obligated to carefully define and identify legitimate targets, trying to avoid collateral damage on its mission to protect Israeli citizens — and various terror groups who deliberately aim at civilians, use civilians as human shields and appear obligated only to their narrow ideological path. War is always bad. Given the situation, what would have been your moral decisions?

Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.