The Corner

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Jeffrey Sachs on State-Sponsored Killing

America isn’t any better than Saudi Arabia when it comes to state-sponsored killing, according to Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs. He writes that “no one should feel self-righteous” about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. After all, President Truman dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. America under other presidents has fought wars in Indochina and Iraq that cost millions of innocent lives. “When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is.” He concludes, “Americans are rightly horrified by Khashoggi’s murder. But their own government’s murderous ways may be little different. The pervasiveness of state-sponsored killings is no excuse for treating murder as acceptable, ever.”

Murder is never acceptable, but not all deaths caused by human action are murders. There are distinctions among (a) a government’s taking actions that cause the deaths of civilians in what it believes to be a just war, (b) a government’s targeting civilians in a just war as a means of ending the war and saving lives, and (c) a government’s deliberately seeking the death of someone to end his peaceful criticism. This is true even if a particular instance of (a) is in the final analysis unjust because the war is, in truth, not justified or if all instances of (b) are unjust because civilian deaths cannot rightly be sought as a means to even good ends.

People who were outraged by the murder of Khashoggi were not by their outrage committing themselves to pacifism; if they believed that what the Saudis did was merely what non-pacifist governments do, they would not have been so outraged. The reaction most people had is evidence of a greater degree of moral discernment than some Columbia University professors are evidently capable of displaying.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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