Jane Devine: Innocents suffering in war

There is a philosophical principle called the “just war theory”.

Black columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in East of Damascus, Syria. Picture: AP
Black columns of smoke rise from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in East of Damascus, Syria. Picture: AP

It sets out the conditions in which war is justified, the way it should be carried out, how it should be ended – and it’s been around since the time of Cicero.

It has extended into international law and is often used called in evidence to argue the invasion of another state is warranted and ultimately legal.

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Like many theories, in practice, its purity and principles are lost as it is contorted and moulded to justify action, or inaction.

Whether just or unjust, war is horrific. Yet theories like this, as well as technical descriptions and categorisations of what is essentially the killing of innocent people, are where world leaders seek solace and defend their response.

Look at Syria. President Assad looks like he has used chemical weapons, most likely sarin, in an area near Damascus. The photographs of the victims of these attacks are hard to look at and to comprehend. Rows and rows of dead babies, children, men and women who – but for their shrouds, look like they are sleeping – reflect the sinister nature of their assassination.

Many people are asking why nothing has been done by the UN or individual states up until now. The answer: it’s not, technically, bad enough.

Last year Barack Obama said of Syria: “A red line for us is [when] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

Not only was that an empty threat (there have been numerous reports of chemical weapons being used, eliciting no action from the States) it implied that there are levels of killing which are worse than others; levels of killing which have to be reached to generate a response.

Is killing not simply killing? To innocent people in Syria, that statement from Obama might as well say: “So long as your persecutors restrict themselves to the more time-consuming, traditional methods of murder, such as bombs, bullets and knives, we’ll leave them to it.”

However, chemical weapons up the ante to the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or “they might affect us”. That seems to have been enough to generate threats of a “serious response”, though no action as yet.

Distinguishing between levels of killing, by camouflaging them with words is a way of avoiding the truth. All weapons used in certain ways are weapons of mass destruction; “collateral damage” means dead people; “repetitive administration of legitimate force” means beating someone to death; “deployment of chemical weapons” means gassing people to death.

Chemical weapons may kill more people quicker, but the end result is the same and has been the same in Syria since this hideous war broke out: innocent people, dead.

There’s no justification for standing by and allowing these atrocities to continue while waiting for a certain category of killing to be reached. Semantics doesn’t save lives.