ETHICS AND INSIGHTS: A Line in the Sand

By: George Lober, US Naval Postgraduate School

Lately I have been thinking about evil—not just any evil, but the truly horrible acts that some people are capable of, the evil that manifests in individuals who delight in taking life, who draw sadistic pleasure from destroying lives, or who are profoundly amoral and feel no regard for the suffering, pain, and emotional devastation they cause others. Most of us, fortunately, will never meet the kinds of sadists and psychopaths who make the cheating salesman, the unethical commander, or the rapacious venture capitalist seem mild by comparison. I've been thinking, moreover, about the moral dilemma that arises when we try to deal with evil people through less than commensurately evil means.

I've been thinking about the moral dilemma that arises when we try to deal with evil people through less than commensurately evil means.
 

Foremost in my thoughts is Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire (now retired), who served in 1994 as Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).1 In 1994, while UNAMIR was monitoring a border dispute between Rwanda and Uganda, Rwanda's Hutu majority population suddenly turned against their Tutsi neighbors with a savagery of bloodletting unparalleled outside of warfare. At one point in his memoir about Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire describes an encounter with the individuals who were directing the genocide.2 Dallaire had requested the meeting himself, under the pretense of wanting to discuss "security," while secretly hoping to also arrange for the safe transfer of refugees from areas under Hutu control. He feared that if he could not negotiate such transfers, he would lose any further opportunity to prevent the deaths of Tutsis and other innocents still trapped inside the Hutus' territories. At the same time, he was struggling with the mounting realities of the genocide: the roadside piles of dismembered corpses; evidence of sadistic, mutilating rapes and murders; and the ongoing, relentless slaughter of Tutsis and opposing Hutus of every age—all being committed under the direction of the very men with whom he had asked to meet.

Fearing his possible urge to kill them on the spot, Dallaire removed the bullets from his pistol before entering the building.
 

These men, Dallaire offers, had not been regarded as security threats by UNAMIR before the killings began. They'd been seen as little more than "gang leaders, punks, [and] criminals." 3 Now they were responsible for overseeing the butchering of thousands. Knowing that fact, and fearing his possible urge to kill them on the spot, Dallaire removed the bullets from his pistol before entering the building where the meeting was to occur. As he began shaking hands with each man, he noticed that the arm and chest of one of the leaders were spattered with dried blood, presumably the blood of one or more Tutsis the leader himself had recently hacked to death with a machete. At that moment, it came home to Dallaire that he was shaking hands with the very individuals who not only acknowledged directing the massacre but were also participating in it. Yet even so, he sat down with them and began to negotiate for the possibility of transferring refugees safely to his control.

Years later, still haunted by the butchery he had witnessed, Dallaire questioned whether, when confronted face to face with that personification of Evil, he should have kept his pistol loaded and killed those men.  

Years later, Dallaire questioned whether, when confronted face to face with that personification of Evil, he should have kept his pistol loaded and killed those men.
 

It's an interesting question, isn't it? Setting aside the likely tactical and strategic factors that may have played into Dallaire's decision—after all, his remaining international force was inexperienced, outnumbered, and outgunned (many members of his force arrived in Rwanda weaponless), and his overarching goal at that time was to find a way to rescue as many of the refugees as possible—one might still wonder whether he should have pulled the trigger. The men he shook hands with were, by his own description, génocidaires and personifications of pure Evil. The notorious Interahamwe militia and other militias they controlled would go on to slaughter thousands more innocent men, women, and children. It's possible some of those lives could have been saved if Dallaire had broken with his own professional and moral ethics and killed the leaders when he had the chance, instead of negotiating with them. Even as he was leaving the meeting, Dallaire acknowledges, it was a question that ripped his stomach apart.

Roméo Dallaire, 1994

Without question, there are many reasons why Dallaire was justified in not shooting those men, but his decision demands that we ask how we would judge him morally if he had. Most estimates place the number of those killed in the attempted genocide at around 800,000, and there's no doubt the men seated before him were happily directing the savagery as it took place. But then there is also the annoying fact that Dallaire had no legal authority under the UNAMIR mission to unilaterally engage the Interahamwe leaders with force. If he chose to kill them, would our moral assessment of that decision depend on the consequences? If the genocide had faltered as a result of being leaderless, even briefly, and if lives were saved, would we hold his decision in an approving moral light? Or would we still regard it as murder?

Let me quickly offer a second example of what I'm pondering. Over the last 13 years, some of the officers I teach have struggled with a similar moral dilemma. They have, on occasion, risked their lives and the lives of their subordinates to capture truly evil, sadistic individuals and turn those individuals over to host-nation judicial systems, only to learn later that those evildoers had been released back into society. Sometimes the killers were released because of corruption within the judicial system, sometimes because of flawed judicial policies and processes, but too often the result was that my students and their subordinates had to risk their lives to capture the same evil individuals again … and again. As a consequence of this frustrating pattern, these officers adopted a moral cynicism that led them to question openly whether it wouldn't actually be more moral to summarily execute such individuals than to permit them to continue to take innocent lives and wreak terror on a society because of a flawed judicial system. Essentially, they questioned whether the moral code, as prescribed by a society or a military organization, shouldn't bend on rare occasion, to meet the extreme circumstances of dealing with the truly diabolical.

Whenever I'm asked that question, and I'm asked it often, I recall the writings of war correspondent Christopher Hedges, who believes that war is an addictive poison for mankind. Yet in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he writes that "the poison that is war does not free us from ethical responsibility. There are times when we must take this poison, just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live." 4 Hedges is asserting that despite war's horrible effects, there are occasions when an ethical responsibility demands that a moral nation engage in war so as to counter an even greater threat or evil, just as a cancer patient consents to engage in debilitating chemotherapy to counter the life-threatening effects of the disease. But Hedges then goes further by offering, "There are times when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral." 5 In the world of Chris Hedges, no faction that engages in war is ever moral, but some factions are less immoral than others, and there unquestionably are times when the truly immoral must be countered.

Can there be occasions when the suffering inflicted by the immoral actions of one individual must be countered by an action that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral?
 

I think of Hedges's comments in the contexts of both my students' questions and Roméo Dallaire's dilemma. If, despite Hedges's personal detestation of war and the brutality it unleashes, he is, in fact, speaking a truth regarding the macro level of war and the moral responsibility to engage in it when circumstances demand, then is it not possible that the same moral responsibility exists at the micro level? Can there, in fact, be occasions when the suffering inflicted by the immoral actions of one individual must be countered by an action that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral?

Even as I write those words, I admit that they make me uncomfortable. I realize their implications for my personal moral framework, the introspection and reexamination they now demand. I realize the threat such questions pose to my obdurate position regarding the role of the rule of law in society and my personal reverence for human life. I also am aware, however, of my willingness to accept what I'd like to think are well-thought-through, ethical exceptions to both those cornerstones of my moral being. Am I willing to consider another: the very personal and immediate dilemma faced by my students?

If I truly revere human life, and if a social or judicial or institutional system and its policies fail to stop the destruction of that life, I have an ethical dilemma.
 

I think I have a lot of work to do to honestly answer my students. I think I need to recognize that if I truly revere human life, and if a social or judicial or institutional system and its policies fail to stop the destruction of that life, I have an ethical dilemma. If the terrorists and killers my students capture are repeatedly released to kill and terrorize again, I may be at that uncomfortable ethical crossroads where consequences intersect with principle. And for me, the way to go isn't clear.

I realize, of course, that my words may elicit a wave of protestations and concerns over what may be perceived as advocacy of vigilantism and the dangers of setting an uncontrollable precedent. Surely some will counter with the historic objection, "Where do you draw the line?" To each of those concerns I respond that I'm not advocating vigilantism in the least; I understand the importance of precedence but reject the fallacy that exceptions can't exist. Most importantly, I sincerely don't know where we should draw the line between the truly Evil with a capital E, such as those blood-spattered men in Rwanda, and the lesser, but still rapacious and lethal, predators of humanity. I don't know. But I am willing to give the question serious consideration. I invite you, if you're willing, to do so as well.

About the Author(s):

George Lober guides US and international military students through the tricky terrain of ethics and critical thinking at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.


NOTES:
  1. UNAMIR forces under Dallaire's command were initially sent to Rwanda in 1993 to monitor the resolution of a border dispute between Uganda and Rwanda. In April 1994, after the presidents of Uganda and Burundi died in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances, ethnic Hutus began slaughtering Rwanda's ethnic Tutsis in a genocide of horrific proportions. The weapon of choice was the machete. Dallaire made desperate calls for UN members to support the mission, but UNAMIR could not field the mandated number of troops or marshal the needed resources to intervene. Despite the efforts of people like Dallaire, the UNAMIR mission was a complete failure, due primarily to international indifference. See "Rwanda–UNAMIR Background," United Nations, n.d.: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/unamirS.htm 
  2. Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2003), 345–47. 
  3. Ibid., 346. 
  4. Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 16. 
  5. Ibid. 
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