7

Bombing for Morality

NEW YORK – A gift for words was always US President Barack Obama’s strongest asset. Now it looks as if his words have trapped him.

Having stated in March that the United States would “not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” and having spoken last year about a “red line” that could not be crossed, he will lose face if he fails to react forcefully to the murder, allegedly by the Syrian regime, of more than 1,000 civilians by sarin gas. Of course, the risk of losing face is not a good reason for attacking another country.

But why did Obama fence himself in with such rhetoric in the first place? Why this particular red line? Secretary of State John Kerry was right to call the use of gas “a moral obscenity.” But so is torturing children, which is how the civil war in Syria actually began more than two years ago. And is killing civilians with chemical agents morally more obscene than shelling, shooting, or starving them to death?

At least since the use of mustard gas in World War I, it has been a common assumption that certain weapons are more immoral than others. Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear bombs in particular, certainly cause more damage faster than conventional armaments do. But is there really a clear moral distinction between killing roughly 100,000 people in Hiroshima with one atom bomb and killing even more people in Tokyo in a single night of incendiary bombing? Was it more immoral to gas Jews than to machine-gun them into open pits?