How to (Not) Kill Compassionately In Defense of Some Military Interventions

By Amir Ahmad Nasr




The post-9/11 era, particularly in the aftermath of the disastrous Iraq War, has produced two troubling attitudes among both the Left and Right in the United States and the West in general.


It’s disturbing to witness the rhetoric of too many right-wing leaders who’ve clearly learned nothing substantive from the spectacular failures of the Bush administration, and instead want to double down recklessly.

Having said that, I’m afraid much of the Left’s attitude these days, while thankfully less troublesome for sure, hasn’t fared that well either.

Over and over, I’ve seen commenters point out the failures of Iraq and Libya allegedly as proof that military intervention is almost inherently a terrible idea. That it creates more problems. That it’s a form of neocolonialism or imperialism. Or that violence begets more violence.

Similarly, a quote I’ve seen making the rounds on Facebook, that goes further, is from Martin Luther King Jr. who wisely said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Taken at face value, these are all commendable moral sentiments. But I’m afraid they’re not enough. In fact, I’d argue that in some cases they’re severely harmful and misguided.

Not doing enough militarily – not killing – can at times be far from the compassionate thing to do. What ever happened to “Never Again”?

You hear this solemn pledge a lot every April, since the month commemorates not only Holocaust Remembrance Day but the official anniversaries of both the Armenian and Rwandan genocides. Leaders at every level seem to love hearing themselves declare “Never Again.” But those who mean it have no power and those with power never mean it. The record speaks for itself.

Indeed, the record does speak for itself, and it’s hideous. The fact is, if we’re going to talk about the failures of Iraq, then we ought to also talk about the successes of Kuwait, Bosnia, and yes, even Libya.

By Marta Bevacqua
US F-16s, March 2011

Contrary to popular opinion, the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya, with the participation of some Arab countries, was in fact a success. Libyan rebels and defectors themselves requested it and urged it, and for good reason.

As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch correctly noted in March 2011, as far as preventing what was then very likely an impending genocide, the intervention worked.

The dozens of burned out tanks, rocket launchers, and missiles bombed at the eleventh hour on the road to Benghazi would have devastated the rebel stronghold if Qaddafi’s forces had been able to unleash them indiscriminately, as they did in other, smaller rebel-held towns, like Zawiyah, Misrata, and Adjabiya. Qaddafi’s long track-record of arresting, torturing, disappearing, and killing his political opponents to maintain control suggests that had he recaptured the east, a similar fate would have awaited those who supported the opposition there. Over a hundred thousand Libyans already fled to Egypt fearing Qaddafi’s assault; hundreds of thousands more could have followed if the east had fallen. The remaining population, and those living in refugee camps abroad, would have felt betrayed by the West, which groups like Al Qaeda would undoubtedly have tried to exploit. Finally, Qaddafi’s victory—alongside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall—would have signaled to other authoritarian governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia to China that if you negotiate with protesters you lose, but if you kill them you win.

(Sounds familiar to what happened post-2011 elsewhere?)

If anything, it was the terrible lack of follow up after the effective military campaign, due to deficient planning and weak political will among coalition members, that created the failures which Libya still continues to suffer from today.

But that is not a reason to avoid any and all interventions in the future. Instead, it should be an opportunity for us to learn from past mistakes and not repeat them.

(For the record, I vocally supported the intervention in Libya, and if I had the chance to do it all over again, I certainly will).

Which brings me to Syria. In some ways, Malinowski’s aforementioned words were unfortunately prophetic, only he was talking about Libya, not today’s Syria even though he might as well have been.

Despite Syrian calls for intervention by what were in 2011 credible moderate rebels, Syria sadly fell victim to various abominable evils, one of them being the lack of an early enough military intervention. As The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen well  observed:

“Syria is the American sin of omission par excellence, a diabolical complement to the American sin of commission in Iraq — two nations now on the brink of becoming ex-nations.”

Yes, there are a plethora of absolutely legitimate reasons to question, debate and oppose interventions and the too often hypocritical nation states who carry them out. Yes, any proposed military campaign will always be fraught with risks, but let’s not fool ourselves.

By default, not killing – when political and diplomatic solutions are available – is without a doubt the most compassionate thing a state can do. However, let us admit – at least in principle – that when faced with ruthless enemies, one sometimes does have to kill despite the risks. Calls to do otherwise aren’t morally commendable by default.

We need to be vigilant against our own tendencies to want to fit events around us into the larger narrative of our inclinations.

Being anti-imperialist, anti-violence, anti-[insert ideological reason to not support military intervention], or actively not taking a stance can sometimes create staggering deadly effects. Each case demands its own varied response.

As for how to kill and intervene, let us certainly demand that we in our support, and the powers that be in execution, will do so maturely and compassionately.

Nietzsche said it best when he stated “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

That said, it’s worth noting that monsters aren’t born monsters. They’re human beings who due to circumstance and bad choices become monstrous.

King speaking to an anti-Vietnam war rally

Winning hearts and minds with nation-building initiatives aside, this is why at the end of the day, there must be a place for us to enact MLK’s axiom and crucial wisdom – “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” – before, during, and after any acts of last-resort state-waged killing. But especially, especially before, so that the cycle of violence societally and internationally can be slowed, and outright stopped wherever possible.

My friend and colleague, Arno Michaelis, a former violent Neo-Nazi skinhead turned fighter for peace, who underwent a profound a journey of redemption understands this more than most. After the Charleston Church massacre of nine innocent African Americans, perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof, Arno wrote:

“Love is the most effective means to draw people from hate. Kumbayas aside, there are dynamics as sound as any law of physics to back this up. Hate and violence are cyclical things. More of either can only fuel the cycle. This is not a problem that we can punish our way out of. As righteous as the anger we feel may be when facing horror… it can never bring us toward a more peaceful world if we let it poison our hearts.

This doesn’t mean we throw Dylann Roof a parade, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to put him somewhere where he can’t hurt anyone else. This does mean that if we seek to see him suffer, we are perpetuating the harm he has done and diminishing our own ability to bring love to the world.”

Word, because let’s face it. It is usually the love-deprived who fall for the morally-depraved and then go on to deprive others of their loved ones.

As such, if we are truly serious about counter-extremism efforts in our communities and winning the more important ideological war, then love absolutely needs to be at the heart of our strategies, policies, and curriculums.

This is not some inane proposition. This is substantive pragmatism, and many right-wingers would do well to take it into strong consideration.

Our moral trajectory so far hasn’t been as bad as some may imagine actually. We truly are capable of better.

And when or if that doesn’t suffice and killing really does become necessary to prevent more impending killings, especially when those in need desperately ask for help, then kill and kill sufficiently. But for heaven’s sake, don’t dance around the corpse.