My conservative friend Doug pointed out that although I have been critical of the Bush administrations endorsement of torture and its violations of privacy rights I have failed to argue that Al Qaeda is evil for conducting terrorist attacks and cutting off heads. I initially thought that, given my criticism of torture, it would be safe to assume that I would be morally opposed to beheadings and the murder of innocents. But, for the sake of making my views clear, I will argue that Al Qaeda is evil. I’ll focus on their terrorist attacks and beheadings.
Terrorist attacks, of the sort conducted by Al Qaeda, are evil. Their beheadings are also evil. In support of this claim, consider what would be considered morally acceptable reasons to kill people. In general, these moral reasons fall into three broad categories. The first is that the people killed deserve to be killed. For example, they have committed acts that justify their deaths. This sort of justification is applied in cases such as the capital punishment of murderers. The second is that while the people do not deserve to be killed, they may legitimately be killed for other morally relevant reasons. For example, it is generally accepted that the killing of a soldier in battle is not an evil action (there are obviously exceptions). The third is that the people killed died as the result of actions that are otherwise justified. Such deaths, it might be said, are regrettable but acceptable if they were unavoidable. For example, civilian causalities are generally accepted in war provided that certain conditions have been met (they were in a legitimate target area such as a munitions factory, etc.) Such deaths might also be justified on consequentialist grounds-while regrettable, if the deaths are the result of actions that create more good than evil, then they would be morally justified.
In the case of the terror attacks and beheadings, the people killed generally do not deserve to die. Terror attacks, in particular, are often aimed at the general population and often kill young children. At the very least, the children cannot deserve to die. After all, they almost certainly have not done anything that warrants death. Further, terrorist attacks are generally intended to create terror-as such, they strike at the general population and not on the basis that the targets deserve to die.
In regards to the second justification, it might be argued that terrorist attacks are acceptable because they are fighting a war that recognizes no distinction between soldiers and civilians so that everyone is a legitimate target-even infants. The main flaw with this view is that it simply ignores all morally relevant distinctions. By failing to recognize the distinction between an armed combatant in a war zone and a baby in a day care center this view is clearly morally unacceptable. It might be replied that my reply begs the question-after all, the position being argued against is that there are no such moral distinctions. However, it is those who hold this position that are begging the question. Our moral intuitions clearly indicate that an infant is morally distinct from an armed soldier on the battlefield. Hence, the burden of proof rests on those who would advocate that the murder of children is morally acceptable.
The third justification is the most plausible. After all, in its war on terror the United States has inflicted civilian casualties and these have been deemed acceptable in some cases. It is, as has often been argued, one of the necessary consequences of war. Since defeating terror is a moral goal, the deaths of civilians (by accident) can be morally justified in terms of that goal. The terrorist can, of course, use the same logic.
On the face of it, the argument would seem to work-unless, of course, one is willing to condemn all killing of innocent people. That moral position would be quite laudable. It would also, some might say, ignore the realities of war.
Even allowing that the United States tolerates civilian deaths, one important moral distinction is that the United States does not intentionally set out to kill civilians. For example, in Iraq the American policy is to kill combatants and terrorists while avoiding civilian deaths as much as possible. Soldiers who murder civilians are treated as criminals and punished. Al Qaeda takes a different approach-they have shown their willingness to murder anyone. That is certainly relevant difference. Of course, since the argument is on consequentialist grounds, it could be replied that what matters is the consequences.
Al Qaeda purports to have a moral goal that justifies their murders. However, this does not seem to be the case. They do use moral language and invoke God, but their end seems to certainly lack moral purity. The fact they are willing to use such terrible means when moral means would serve as well ( or better) does more to reveal the truth about Al Qaeda than their words. They are clearly evil people doing evil things to achieve evil ends. So there, Doug.