A chilling ethical can of worms opens up as soon as we contemplate the barbaric nerve gas attacks in Syria and the equally barbaric behaviour of the Free Syrian fighters who lined up captive soldiers, shirtless and trembling on the ground, and shot them in the head. Who, if anyone, has the moral high ground to decide who the “good guys” are and which side is on the “wrong side of history?”
To Obama, Assad’s nerve gas attacks crossed the moral red line, but how can America draw the line there when it's America who has repeatedly violated this boundary over the past half century in Dresden, Vietnam and Hiroshima?
What about the hundreds of thousands of civilians that were killed under false pretences in Iraq? And what about President Obama’s drone program, his kill-lists and assassinations squads? Why can Obama sit in the White House in his crisp suit and demand that a Pakistani or Yemini man who might one day be a terrorist be killed later that afternoon, but it’s not okay for Assad to gas his bloodthirsty enemies? Over the next few days we will ask: “Where do we draw the line? Who, if anyone, has the moral high ground?”
On September 9th, 2013, John Kerry announced that Assad had one week to hand over all of his chemical weapons or face attack. On July 26, 1945, America threatened Japan with quite similar language. Although Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, thereby ending the second World War, America demanded Japan surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.” When the Japanese government ignored the Potsdam ultimatum (which contained no mention of atomic weapons), American airmen dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9th) killing over 250,000 people. Half these deaths occurred on the day of the bombings, due to flame burns or falling debris, but thousands died over the following months as radiation sickness took over and poisoned their bodies.
President Truman understood well the destructive power of these new weapons before their use in Japan. He declared the atom bomb “the most terrible thing ever discovered.” But his top priority wasn’t to avoid unnecessary deaths in Japan, it was to end the war as quickly as possible with the fewest American casualties.
Was President Truman’s logic in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki more or less immoral than Assad’s in decision to use nerve-gas in Damascus?