by Julio R. Sharp-Wasserman
Unambiguous evidence came to light after the initiation of the recent offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, demonstrating that the Obama administration knowingly lied about the existence and threat level of an imaginary terrorist group they called “Khorasan,” in the lead up to the attack. This is a good time to reflect upon what religion has to offer in explaining and evaluating this type of state behavior. The Bible tells us that we are all flawed morally. This means, on the one hand, that, as with all moral criticism, denunciations of violence are most honestly and effectively directed at ourselves before they are directed at others, since each of us has the most control over her own morally imperfect behavior. On the other hand, we must also remember, as we often do not, that when state violence becomes so heinous that righteous indignation is appropriate, the same moral standards apply to agents of the state that apply to all of us, as we are all mere humans.
The public justification of this act of war crucially invoked the existence of and immediate danger posed by the imaginary “Khorasan,” both to prevent popular opposition in the U.S. and to elude the international legal requirement that military actions taken without U.N. authorization be in response to an imminent threat. The executive branch, in a strategically adroit and appallingly unethical maneuver, released this story to the press soon enough before the attack to preclude public scrutiny of the lies presented and then had other agents of the executive publically correct the fabricated account after the attack was irreversibly underway, apparently in order to evade accusations that they misinformed the public. This was well covered by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain at the left-wing publication The Intercept as well as by Andrew McCarthy at the conservative National Review. Needless to say, these state actions violate widely accepted moral principles condemning dishonesty and violence for reasons other than self-defense.
It is of the utmost importance that we realize non-violence in our own personal relationships and teach the next generation to do the same. In doing so we construct a less violent world by embodying peace. However, because of the urgency of opposing egregious ongoing U.S. government crimes in the Middle East, we should also be emphatic in holding the agents of the state personally morally responsible for these transgressions in a publically recognizable way.
There are two obstacles in popular political thinking to this advancement in popular consciousness. One is the common belief, originating in modern social contract theory, that government in a democratic society is the embodiment of a collective will, and thus immune from judgment by those citizens who are automatic participants in whatever actions the government commits. We betray this superstition when we say that “we” bombed Iraq, or that “the United States” has taken unilateral military action. But popular opinion is, even in the best functioning democracies, just one more check in a larger system of checks and balances, and functions only in certain circumstances and to a limited extent. The agents of the state are, at the end of the day, independent individuals who make their own choices. Moreover, although we express our opinions by voting between major candidates, the more powerful forms of expression are those that involve withdrawing support from mainstream politics and pressuring political institutions from without. Vote for independent candidates or publically denounce the choice to vote when we are presented with identically warlike candidates. Attend protests and put your opposition into political writing or into art.
The second erroneous common philosophical assumption, which is less explicit, is that agents of the state ought to be held to different and more lenient moral standards simply by virtue of the fact that they are agents of the state. To think this way is to treat the state as a false idol—an object of worship too mysterious and great to be susceptible to judgment. However, murder or dishonesty committed by an agent of the state are morally identical to murder or dishonesty by anyone else. When the small group of individuals in charge of military policy kills hundreds of thousands in Iraq, this action is actually a violation of the most fundamental and obvious of moral principles, hundreds of thousands of times over. The way we think and talk about and otherwise react to this should reflect the obvious seriousness of this moral offense.