Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Grim anniversary, of exceptional terrorism. By the West.

This is an excellent time to pause and think about terrorism.

We in the democracies rightly fear terrorism and want to do everything we can to prevent further terrorist outrages. We’d like to get into a position where no one any longer resorts to terrorism, because they realise that it cannot succeed and will always be defeated.

Sadly, however, our own nations are responsible for one of the worst ever acts of terrorism the world has seen. It was carried out with impunity – none of those responsible was ever made to answer for it – and it proved successful, which might rather encourage than discourage others down that route.

We’re at the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, on 6 August 1945. It had a population of perhaps 350,000 at the time. Between 100,000 and 150,000 died, the vast majority civilians.

The A-bomb dome in Hiroshima
Stark and poignant memorial to a horrifying act of war
The deliberate killing of civilians for political ends is pretty much the textbook definition of terrorism.

Of course, the defenders of the decision to drop the bomb argue that they were not intending to kill civilians. There were indeed military targets in the city. But that’s a bit of a sophism. If you use the most massively destructive weapon ever developed against a city of a third of a million people, you know you’re going to kill a lot of them. If you were trying to take out Field Marshal Shunroku Hata, who was stationed at Hiroshima, and perhaps his general staff, would you really need to destroy 70% of the city’s buildings and so much of the population?

Hata, by the way, didn’t die in the bombing.

In any case, the way military authorities in the democracies described this kind of action – the same terms were used for the bombing of German cities – was that they were designed to break the spirit of the civilian population. The idea was that with that spirit gone, the enemy nations would have to give up the fight. 

Isn’t that a bit of a giveaway? It sounds terribly like the kind of objective a terrorist movement might set itself.

President Truman, despite being one of the better holders of the position, declared on the occasion of the Nagasaki bombing, three days later: “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb ... It is an awful responsibility which has come to us ... We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

So we have appeals to divine justification for our use of a terrifying weapon.

What’s more, its use succeeded. Most authorities agree that the bombing of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki brought the war to a rapid close. Churchill believed that the bombing saved a million American lives and half that number of British ones. He was estimating casualties on the basis of having to invade the main Japanese islands, but many who claim that there were other ways to win the war without using the bomb or invading, estimate that the resulting Japanese casualties would have been still worse.

So the message is clear. If you’re powerful enough and can be sufficiently devastating in your action, you can get away with terrorism. You can achieve your aims by it. And, what’s more, God might even be on your side.

Not the best message to put out there. Not one that’s doing us much good today.

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