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Why we give little thought when innocents die because of U.S. policies

It’s somehow wrapped up in the deranged religion of “American exceptionalism.”

An Iraqi girl who, according to Iraqi authorities, was wounded in an air strike, lies in a hospital bed in Baghdad, March 20, 2003.
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died (and are still dying) as a result of the “war of choice” launched by the United States during the George W. Bush administration for reasons that turned out to be wrong (and that’s assuming, for the moment, that the “belief” that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” was the real reason).

Some of the dead — starting with Saddam himself, of course — were legitimate villains, thugs and/or murderers themselves. Far more were just soldiers and still more were civilians, most of whom we can suppose were in the category of innocent victims whose only crime was being born in the wrong country at the wrong time when the world’s greatest superpower decided to liberate them.

We all kinda know this, but perhaps don’t think about it enough, even when we are thinking about the “mistake” that the U.S. bombing and invasion of Iraq turned out to be. Nor do we think enough about the inevitable additional innocent deaths that the United States will have on its hands if/when we yield to the next or the next or the next idea for a war that we need to start or get into or escalate our involvement in.

I do believe — although this is way above my pay grade — that this represents some kind of collective moral failing for those of us who were so much wiser and more discerning in choosing the location and circumstances our own births.

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I am not a strict pacifist, but I am often struck — when we are contemplating our next attack/invasion/incursion/surgical strike — by how relatively little thought and discussion goes to the inevitable death of innocents that will end up on our collective moral ledger (not to mention the inevitable enduring hatred of America that will be engendered among the survivors).

On the other hand (getting a little closer to the intended point of this little essay), Americans and others around the world often pay enormous attention to much smaller incidents that involve deaths (or near-deaths or possible deaths) of innocents around the world. It could be miners trapped in a cave. It could be passengers on a plane that crashed or has gone missing. It could be a murder victim. It could be the four Americans who died in Benghazi (although generally not the Libyans who died in the same attack). It could be those in the path of a storm or a tidal wave. It could be the young girls taken by Boko Haram.

In general, it is not a group of innocents whose lives are lost or directly endangered by a policy of our nation.

I actually think about this fairly often. It’s somehow wrapped up in the deranged religion of “American exceptionalism.” But I was set off to write about it by reading this piece by Harvard international relations scholar Stephen Walt in Foreign Affairs, headlined (provocatively) “Whose Lives Matter?”

The subheadline on Walt’s piece struck me as wrong. It goes: “When refugees die on Europe’s borders, the West wants to act, but when Assad rains barrel bombs on Homs, no one cares.” A lot of people in the West and in the United States seem to care a lot about what Syrian dictator/President Hafez Assad is doing in Homs and elsewhere. It strikes me that the United States is fairly obsessed with what to do in Syria, and those who favor greater military action there undoubtedly cite the innocent victims of barrel bombs as part of the justification.

Walt is from the school of international-relations theory known as “realism,” which is generally unsentimental about the U.S. posture of moral crusader in the world and generally reluctant to see the United States get militarily involved in situations. I have a lot of sympathy for the general approach. But in “Whose Lives Matter?” Walt is mostly interested in trying to understand why the world in general and the United States in particular is more moved to get involved in certain kinds of death-and-danger situations than others. He’s even developed what he considers the nine factors that affect the likelihood of the United States or the world rushing to the rescue of those in danger.