Nor does it help that the bombing killed five others — a group that may have included terrorists, but also included a child and possibly other innocent civilians.
Under the laws of war, Zarqawi was undoubtedly a legitimate target. Enemy commanders are fair game. And no one outside his family should shed tears for Zarqawi, who maimed and murdered hundreds with ruthless brutality.
Moreover, there may have been valid military reasons to blow him up rather than capture him. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, military officials feared that going in on the ground risked Zarqawi’s escape, even though U.S. and Iraqi forces had surrounded the house Zarqawi was in and, indeed, had taken over the entire village.
Nevertheless, there is something disturbing about targeted killing when capture is possible. Suppose that police in the United States surrounded the house of a domestic terrorist — let’s say John Allen Muhammad, the Washington-area sniper.
We would be outraged if the police simply blew up the house and everyone in it. Everyone knows that the police shouldn’t act as Muhammad’s judge, jury and executioner, and no one would accept the explanation of “collateral damage” for the deaths of the other people in the house. Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, were disasters, not victories.
In an essay in “The Future of the Army Profession,” Tony Pfaff (an Army lieutenant colonel and a veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars) explains that the professional morality of police and warriors differs sharply. In Pfaff’s words: “Police are always looking to use the least force possible. But Marines and soldiers are trained to defeat enemies. . . . They are always looking to use the most force permissible.”