The Death of Civilians; the Three Shades of Sorrow

Every life is precious.

For many people, every life form is considered sacred, whether human or animal. In the United States alone there are an estimated 7 million people who restrict their diets to fruits and vegetables.

The vast majority of people around the world are not vegetarians. Still, there are limits to what they would consider eating. Domestic animals like dogs and cats are considered taboo in many cultures, and almost all 7 billion people on the planet avoid cannibalism. Even to those that do not consider eating meat to be immoral, there are limits.

The concept of the preciousness of life and limits of behavior extends beyond eating habits. Most of Europe has abolished the use of capital punishment.   The European Union considers the death penalty to be “cruel and inhuman”, even for heinous crimes.

However, 40+ countries still use capital punishment for a variety of offenses.  Each society decides the limits of acceptable and extreme behavior.  Even among countries that use capital punishment, the nature of the crime makes people assess the level of innocence of the person, the objection to the use of the death penalty, and sympathy for the accused. People may feel more upset when they hear about a homosexual who harmed no one, being stoned to death (in Mauritania, for example), than a mass murderer being executed (in the USA). There is a perceived range of innocence and guilt, and therefore associated gradations of grief.

This is true even among civilians who are killed during wartime. Some innocents are viewed as more “pure” than others and their unfortunate demise warrants more despair. Below are three categories of civilians from most to least innocent: Innocents; Targets; and Enablers.

  1. The Innocent
    A. Bystanders:
    In battles, passers-by may be attacked and killed without cause. These people have no part in the conflict and may not even be aware that one was taking place. An example would be the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 that was shot over the border of Ukraine and Russia in July 2014. The 298 bystanders were killed without reason- the people had no role in the war. One can imagine that even the people that carried out the attack did it by mistake and regretted the action.B. Children: Children are innocent by definition: they lack knowledge and ability; they have no control of their situation; they neither vote nor fight. Still, almost every war has witnessed children killed. In the War between Gaza and Israel in the summer of 2014, hundreds of children were killed as the fighting took place in heavily populated areas.

    C. Slaughtered Citizens:
    Citizens of a country have every reason, right and expectation that their own government protects them. That protection is the primary basis for any government to exist. When a government reverses that course and turns its protective weaponry inwards to target its own population, it is a slaughter of innocents. Consider the millions of German Jews in the 1930s and 1940s who had every right to expect their government to protect them. When the Nazis specifically targeted these citizens, the Jews were left completely helpless. It was not a civil war of a division seeking independence; it was a slaughter of the defenseless by its own army.

2. The Targets

D. Initial Civilian Targets: Some civilians are attacked because of the actions of their government. The people going to work on September 11, 2001 in the USA were not military targets and were not part of the government. The attackers specifically targeted their places of work – America’s financial and military centers – as they were unhappy with America’s influence and presence in the Muslim world. The nearly 3,000 civilians were just going to work and had no role in, or understanding of the unhappiness of the attackers.

E. Civilians Targeted after Military Attack: The victims in Hiroshima and Nagaski were living in Japan when the US dropped an atomic bomb on them during the end of World War II in 1945. The Japanese initiated the war by attacking US military targets in Pearl Harbor four years earlier. As the war dragged on, the US concluded that it would end the war faster by obliterating entire cities which included both people involved in the war and uninvolved civilians who were part of the aggressor force. World reaction to the attack has been mixed, whether the action saved more lives by ending the war faster.

F. Civilians Targeted after Civilian Attack: The allies in WWII launched a bombing campaign on the German city of Dresden in February 1945. The Dresden attack was a reaction to the German-initiated war and attack on Great Britain. The further argument given to destroying the entire city was that it was an important center for the German war effort. An estimated 25,000 people were killed in the British and US bombing campaign.

  1. The Enablers
    G.  Backers of War Policy: Civilians are defined as people who are not part of the armed forces. However, there are people who are technically not part of the armed forces but are directly involved in advancing a war. For example, Palestinians voted overwhelmingly for Hamas and its war campaign against Israel in 2006. Hamas has fought constantly against Israel and Israel has responded with three operations: in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead); 2012 (Operation Pillar of Defense); and 2014 (Operation Protective Edge). Many civilians (both those that voted for the war policy and those that didn’t) were killed in those wars.

The loss of any life is sad, but it is human nature to react to the particular circumstance of each death. In an extreme example, an 8-year old killed while riding a bicycle brings more sympathy than a convicted murderer getting the death penalty. As detailed in the article above, it is not surprising that even in the finer shades of gray among civilians killed during war, that people feel more horror for the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, than for Palestinians who voted for war.


EU human rights:

Death penalties worldwide:

Hamas victory:

Death sentence for homosexuality:


15 thoughts on “The Death of Civilians; the Three Shades of Sorrow

  1. What a transparently ridiculous exercise in self-exculpation. I suppose we don’t need to worry – sorry, “feel less horror for” – the 490 children killed in Gaza in the last six weeks because they would certainly have grown up as “backers of war policy”, given the huge increase in bitterness against Israel that the recent war has caused. In fact, thinking it through, killing them will probably save more lives in the end! Thanks, I definitely feel less horror now.


    • Re-read the article: children are considered the most innocent. Their deaths are tragic. Your continued argument that they will grow up to be war-mongers is absurd. Some of the Israeli children and some of the Palestinian children MAY grow up to argue for war- but who knows? They are innocent today. The war-mongers of Gaza – even those who are not technically in the armed forces – are the least innocent and can barely be called “civilians”. To call them such, shields them from their complicity in the war crimes.


      • It’s not in the least absurd to think that children who survive a war like that will grow up wanting revenge. Where do you suppose the bitterness against Israel comes from? (unless of course you subscribe to the convenient meme “they’re like scorpions, it’s in their nature”). Imagine: a Gazan, an “innocent civilian” until now, vows revenge as he buries his child, one of the 490. In two years time, when the next war comes, he will be a militant. So it will be ok to “feel less horror” at his fate. No need to imagine that, in fact: it’s happened, again and again.


      • Germany intended to exterminate the entire Jewish population of the world. They tortured men, women and children for years. They boasted of their heinous medical experiments on their own innocent civilian population.
        And yet, Israel made peace with Germany. The two are significant trading partners today.
        Do not pretend to predict the future: a Son of Hamas can realize the evil of the organization and seek to live in peace with Jews. You should expect more from Palestinians. Don’t ask me to defend why I expect less from them- I don’t.


  2. Just curious why Israeli’s regrettable collateral damage of children in Gaza is mentioned rather than the 200,000 dead in Syria with at least 10,000 children being tortured and killed?


    • That’s just whataboutery. Your post didn’t mention Syria anywhere: it ended with you talking about “Palestinians who voted for war”, and I replied to that. If you want to talk about Syria, fine; but let’s finish with this first: You changed the subject from my hypothetical (which isn’t really hypothetical, of course). Could you reply to that, please?


      • I mistook the author of your comment – sorry. But the point about whataboutery stands. You don’t change the rights and wrongs of one situation because another one is worse. I responded to a post about Gaza. When I respond to one about the horrific Syrian situation, I’ll talk about that. But to the Gazan whose child has been killed, you’re hardly going to say: “be grateful you don’t live in Syria, it’s far worse there”, are you?


    • excellent point. The killings in Syria – and torture – of children has been going on for three years. Accidental killings and deliberate torture are nowhere near the same level when it comes to the people who did the action. As far as the victims – the children – it is the same. They are innocent.
      The article is about the civilians – the people killed. It is intended to be an analysis that not all civilian deaths are the same. Some civilians are more innocent than others and people should not lump them all together.
      The article is secondarily about how people may feel about the different classes of civilians. It argues that it is normal to feel more sympathy for the innocents as opposed to the enablers.
      It is not really about the people who killed the civilians, although I understand why you made your point.


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