5/30/2011—Apropos of Memorial Day, the New York Times yesterday ran a kind of review essay in the book review section of revisionist historical views of the morality of mass civilian bombing in WWII with the express goal of destroying German and Japanese will to resist. There is not much doubt that by 1944, the goal of strategic bombing had in fact changed from destroying military production capacity, with high resulting civilian casualties, to targeting cities generally. Dresden and Hiroshima followed. The issue is more or less this, if the allies targeted civilians for an effect on morale, how does this differ from the terrorism that we condemn today? How does this differ from 9/11?
The answer here must not deny the obvious. Bombing in WWII, atomic and conventional, did target civilians at least in part and did so to destroy the will of these enemy nations to resist. Bin Laden would have said he was doing the same thing.
But this parallel is misleading. In criminal law, the doctrine of necessity allows a person to violate the law, doing things that would otherwise be unlawful, when there is genuine necessity to do so. Necessity, however, does not include an inability to persuade a majority to change its view of an issue. So, destruction of property of others is permissible to keep me warm in a blizzard, but not to protest the War in Iraq.
Here lies the difference between the allies in WWII and terrorists today. War was thrust upon the allied nations by aggressive war waged against them (waged also by the Soviet Union at the beginning, of course). There was no alternative to victory in order to win that war and prevent the current regimes from trying again.
The terrorists of today cannot say there is no alternative to violence. There is simply no alternative that will be as effective in their eyes as terrorism. They turn to violence because they cannot persuade.
Of course this distinction means that the United States has an obligation to give even violent groups an alternative to violence. The first amendment does not require that violence be renounced in principle before one is allowed to speak. The same principle would require dealing with Hamas once it democratically achieves power.