Thursday, March 03, 2016

"Take out their families"

It's hard to keep up with all of the outrageous things Trump says, but one statement of his that continues to get bad press is this: "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families."

That's been widely denounced. However, it's an example of how critics fail to adequately address Trump's "solutions". Problem is, many supporters probably like what he said. To merely express disapproval simply reinforces their impression that Trump's critics are soft. Trump is prepared to do what's necessary. He will protect us. By contrast, his critics are paralyzed by political correctness. 

i) On the face of it, there's a certain logic to what he said. If you wish to deter terrorists, you attack something they care about. Even if a terrorist is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the cause, he will balk at exposing his family to harm. Therefore, you have to hit them where it hurts. So what, exactly, was wrong with Trump's statement? 

ii) To begin with, even if that was an effective tactic, military ethics is very important. In a way, ethics is even more important in warfare because the stakes are so much higher. There's a much greater potential or temptation to commit atrocities. Especially in war, we need to draw certain lines.

iii) Apropos (ii), this isn't just airy-fairy idealism. What makes us better than the enemy? What gives us the moral justification to wage war? If we're prepared to do whatever the enemy does, then we're all villains. 

iv) What does he mean by their families? There's a sense in which terrorism can be a family business. You can have fathers, grown sons, and adult brothers who are terrorists. Family in that sense is fair game. But if Trump means women and underage children, that's a different issue. 

v) Over and above the ethical concerns are logistical issues. Who, exactly, does he have in mind? Does American intelligence have a list of names and addresses for every terrorist family, or even most terrorist families? Presumably, we can't just send a cruise missile or predator drone to the address of every terrorist family, because we don't know where most of them reside. At best, I presume we only know who the leaders are. The upper echelon of terrorist networks. But even in that case, that doesn't mean we know their whereabouts. 

vi) If you can't perform surgical strikes to take out the terrorists, then the alternative would seem to be carpet bombing. Kill everyone within a certain radius to make sure you get the terrorists. That gives you a margin. 

Here's a problem with that tactic: one justification for defeating ISIS is to protect innocent civilians from ISIS. This is, in part, a humanitarian mission. But unless ISIS members are segregated from the general population, then Trump's proposal is like "destroying the village to save the village". 


  1. Last night, he referred specifically to the families of the 19 9/11 terrorists, who apparently left the country days before the 9/11 attacks. If we have intelligence about who's going to be doing these sorts of things, why not arrest the families in advance? Or at least, take them into custody?

  2. I'm no Trump defender, but there's a legitimate sense, I think, where the actions of the terrorists necessarily endanger the lives of their kin.

    All things being equal we'd prefer not to blow up entire extended families, but so long as they harbor and enable the terrorists they're complicit. They invite the consequences of their association.

    Furthermore many Muslim cultures glorify the "Mujahideen". They're heroic martyrs. Families cash government checks when their brother or father die in service to Allah in jihad.

    So again the general population is implicated in the guilty actions of the few, which they knowingly harbor and provide succor. Certainly the very young, the mentally infirmed, nor the extremely aged with dementia have no voice in the matter, but bombs aren’t smart enough to spare them.

    Then there's the question of just/ unjust war. Are we at war? What is our nation's official posture here? It seems unclear, and to that extent Trump is working in the gray areas.

    1. Trump isn't referring to collateral damage or human shield situations. He's talking about going after what terrorists value. Sure, some wives are complicit. But he's intentionally targeting innocents as a deterrent, because the innocents are precious to the terrorists.

    2. But there's also the legal question. If that's contrary to the laws of war, then he's issuing unlawful orders. Not only does he lack the authority to do so, but it places soldiers in legal jeopardy. I'm reminded of how Nixon's subordinates took the rap for their boss. He got a pardon while they got jail time.

      If a US President thinks the legal rules of engagement tie our hands, he should work with Congress to revise or repeal the governing treaties.

    3. I think what you're saying has a lot of merit, but as you know there are some obvious and complex issues involved in this particular matter. To wit, is ISIS/ISIL a "nation" that has signed treaties such as the Geneva convention? Do terrorists and by extension terrorist enablers acting as knowing human shields fall under standard rules of engagement?

      I'm not suggesting Trump is right that the U.S. military, which boils down to individual boots-on-the-ground at some point, should be ordered to murder the wives, children and extended family of known terrorists execution style like a mob hit.

      In fact I think this type of order, and its carrying out would be illegal and immoral under just about any theory or situation imaginable apart from a parallel universe/possible world thought experiment.

      I guess I'm not clear about the concerns you raise about a President acting with Congress regarding rules of engagement and treaties when they don't seem to apply in the case in view.