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Killing for Moral Clarity

Brendan O’Neill offers some withering criticism of demands for military intervention in Syria by a certain kind of do-gooding interventionist:

Add weight to our moral impulse’ – what an unwittingly brilliant description of the dangerous thinking, or rather feeling, behind so-called humanitarian interventionism. The aim is to make a massive, fiery display of one’s own ‘moral impulse’, to ‘add weight’ to one’s conspicuous and adjective-heavy feelings of outrage and disgust by encouraging NATO or America or someone to drop a few bombs. Here, military intervention is demanded, not as a specific, targeted thing that might change the shape of a conflict, but rather as an amplifier of the probity and decency of Western observers, of the Bosnia generation.

One of the more disturbing aspects of humanitarian interventionist arguments is their built-in assumption that the moral principles of Western societies require us to provide weapons to one side or to use force and potentially kill large numbers of people to end the internal and regional conflicts of other nations. Contributing to the killing is what proves our “moral clarity.” Even if the death toll rises during and partly because of the intervention, as it did in Libya, the intervention is nonetheless a “success” because it achieved the desired political goal of regime change that the intervening states had ruled out when the fighting began.

There is a related pretense that humanitarian interventions are carried out for the benefit of the people on all sides of the conflict when they clearly benefit only the side that the intervening states have decided to be the ones that should prevail. “Humanitarian” interventions inflict suffering and death mostly on one side in the conflict, but it is already taken for granted that one side in a contest for power is worthy of our support while the other deserves to be defeated. If “our” favored side conducts reprisals or massacres, many Westerners tend to minimize it or ignore it, or they will quickly disavow the group responsible. Even though “we” facilitated the victory, “we” are somehow able to avoid taking responsibility for what follows from that victory.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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