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The Protection of Civilians

Updated: Jan 9

A dominant theme of The Climate of Justice is that developing a social climate of justice requires the protection of civilians. Since the events of October, there’s lots of talk about the protection of civilians even as they are being killed by the thousands. President Biden traveled to the Middle East with the message that the Israel military should not make the mistake we did after 9/11. What was the mistake? The attack on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Remember President Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign?

In her book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out that a central element of our war strategy from the Indian wars to the present has been to kill civilians. One can remember the massacres of Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, or dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the 2 million civilians that were killed in Vietnam. Evan in Iraq, we used “tomahawk missiles, “Apache helicopters,” in “Indian territory.” We should not underestimate the significantce of our President naming our mistakes to encourage the Israeli government not to repeat them.

We are not limited to persuasion here, because most nations have agreed to the 1949 Geneva Protocol to protect civilians in times of war. Civilians are not dependent on the generosity of persons, in other words, but on the law. Not to protect civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law.

Hamas’s slaughter and kidnapping of civilians was such a violation. I can also say that it appears that Israel failed to protect its civilians. So many were left without protection from evil. What are we to make of that? Does it remind us of how we as a nation have often failed to protect our civilians, especially those subject to the terror of white supremacy.

Living in a post-October 7th war, the question now is who will protect the civilians. Does Hamas aim to protect civilians or to use them? Perhaps Hamas believes that their fight for freedom is more important than the protection of Palestinian civilians. From this perspective, civilians become instruments of war, which is a clear violation of international humanitarian law.

Moral progress is a tricky business. We finally outlawed lynching in the United States. We have even called our “shock and awe” program a mistake. Many people today recognize both vulnerable Israelis and Palestinians as civilians. Despite all their differences, in this regard they are the same.

Not protecting civilians is not just a “mistake,” it is a violation of international law as well as a debasement of our human responses to the horrors of war. Before the 1949 Protocol on the protection of civilians, one could use the double-effect theory to evaluate the morality of war. It held that if the impact of the harm you do is greater than the good you intend, then you should not do it. That should be enough to stop the bombing of Gaza. If we add the obligation to protect civilians. It must be stopped.

1 Comment

Sharon G. Thornton
Sharon G. Thornton
Oct 25, 2023

"That should be enough to stop the bombing of Gaza. If we add the obligation to protect civilians. It must be stopped."

May it be so!


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