Friday, January 13, 2012

Those dead Iranian scientists

I've been struggling with what to think—and how to express my thoughts—about the wave of assassinations directed at Iranian nuclear scientists. I think that war is bad and killing is bad, but I'm not the complete pacifist I was in my Mennonite days—back, that is, when I thought God would make everything OK in the end, making it easier to accept certain evils and injustices on Earth. Perhaps it's the Mennonite poking through, but the assassinations strike me as ... unsavory. Yet, unlike Glenn Greenwald, I'm not prepared to quite condemn it either. This troubles me. I like my moral conundrums easily resolved.

I suspect we could live with a nuclear-armed Iranian state. I don't think the mullahs are suicidal. I think they—like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union—would use the threat of nuclear arms use to throw their weight around the region and the world. But: The more nuclear weapons there are in the world, the more countries that get their hands on them, the more opportunities there are for something to go disastrously, genocidally wrong.

So what's the death of a few scientists compared to an averted genocide?

Yet, something doesn't feel quite right about that to me either. I found myself rubbed wrong by Jonathan Tobin's praise of the assassinations yesterday. He wrote: "Anyone who believes Iran should be allowed to proceed toward the building of a nuclear bomb has either lost their moral compass or is so steeped in the belief that American and Israeli interests are inherently unjustified they have reversed the moral equation in this case. Rather than the alleged U.S. and Israeli covert operators being called terrorists, it is the Iranian scientists who are the criminals. They must be stopped before they kill."

Wait. The scientists are criminals? That doesn't strike me quite right, either. It's entirely possible they're patriots, with all the good and bad that implies. (And I've heard a few experts suggest that the end of theocracy in Iran wouldn't necessarily mean the end of the pursuit of nuclear weapons; it's kind of rational for a country to want to have the ultimate weapon to use in its defense.) Or it's entirely possible, authoritarianism being what it is, that the assassinated scientists simply didn't have much choice about their participation: Show a talent for math or physics, and voila! You're working on a planet-killer. Do we have evidence that these scientists are, well, mad scientists, bent on the world's destruction? I'm not sure we do. Ascribing criminality to those individuals—instead of the regime they serve—seems a way of making us feel better about the awful thing that has happened.

But as awful as that hypothetical genocide?

I don't have a good answer to this. There's the certainty of the awfulness now, weighed against the (again) hypothetical danger avoided. It's a guessing game, but one in which a few lives or many might be sacrificed.

Rod Dreher gets at it better than I can here:
To be sure, I’m against war with Iran, and the main reason I would never vote for Santorum is that he relishes the thought of war with Iran. However, I am by no means certain that it was wrong for the Israelis to have killed this scientist, given that they are in a state of de facto war with Iran, and that the Iranian leadership has publicly and repeatedly vowed to exterminate the Israelis. My point here is that even if the killing of the Iranian scientist is justified as self-defense, it is nothing to be called “wonderful.” A grim, tragic necessity? Perhaps. But “wonderful”? We must not allow ourselves to bless these things, much less glory in them, as Santorum has done.
That sounds close to right to me. One reason I'm pretty sure I'll never become a certain variety of conservative is because I have enough Mennonite left in me to disdain glorying in such things. But I've also got enough distance from that faith to suspect that sometimes bad things must be done. I feel remorse about the death of the scientists. And I hope that their deaths served the (apparent) intended purpose. I suspect they'll just be another trigger in an endless cycle of recrimination that might one day end up immersing us in the awful violence we seek to avoid. I'm not sure we'll ever know the right answer.

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