By Edward Mitchell
My history teacher instructed me and a few other students to prosecute President Truman by arguing that the nuclear bombings were immoral and unnecessary. She assigned an equal number of students to defend Truman by countering that the bombings were necessary and legitimate.
Our jury, three neutral students, ultimately agreed with the defense. They declared Truman not guilty.
I was shocked—not just because I lost the competition, but because I genuinely believed that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were patently immoral acts of state-sponsored terrorism.
After all, President Truman scared the Japanese government into surrendering by instantly killing over 200,000 Japanese civilians, many of them vaporized. Thousands of others suffered radiation poisoning that eventually caused lethal cancer and gruesome birth defects.
Today, on the 70th anniversary of the bombings, I oppose them even more strongly, in no small part because of my Islamic faith.
Why? Despite the claims of terrorist groups, Islamic law forbids intentionally killing innocent people, even in the midst of a just conflict. This is why a 2011 Gallup poll showed that 78% of American Muslims said that it is never justified for a military to target and kill civilians. A 2013 Pew poll put that number at 81%.
By comparison, 58% of American Protestant respondents said the exact opposite: that killing civilians is sometimes justified. Catholic, Mormon and Jewish Americans reported similar views.
This may explain an interesting historical trend: although Americans now frown upon some of our nation’s World War II tactics, such as the internment of Japanese Americans, a majority still believes the nuclear bombings were justified.
Without the bombs, the argument goes, Japan would have never surrendered. To achieve permanent victory, the United States would have had to launch a ground invasion, costing thousands of American lives. By instead scaring the Japanese into surrender, the atom bombs ended the war early and saved American lives.
This was the argument made in “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” a Wall Street Journal editorial written by Brett Stephens.
“In all the cant that will pour forth this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs—,” Stephens wrote, “that the U.S. owes the victims of the bombings an apology; that nuclear weapons ought to be abolished; that Hiroshima is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man; that Japan could have been defeated in a slightly nicer way—I doubt much will be made of [a WWII soldier’s] fundamental point: Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t just terrible war-ending events. They were also lifesaving. The bomb turned the empire of the sun into a nation of peace activists.”
But this argument is historically inaccurate and, ironically, similar to arguments that terrorists make to justify attacks on American civilians today.
First, there were obvious alternatives to dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Consider this: by August of 1945, the hobbled Japanese military no longer posed a serious offensive, much less existential, threat to the United States. So why not blockade the island nation until it surrendered? Or why not drop one atom bomb off Japan’s coast as a threatening demonstration of what we could do to their cities?
Even if Japan still refused to capitulate, would the benefit of avoiding a ground invasion have justified the moral cost of nuclear warfare? Put another way: is it better to achieve victory by potentially sacrificing thousands of soldiers rather than certainly murdering thousands of civilians?
“Historical judgments must be made in light not only of outcomes but also of options,” Stephens wrote in his Wall Street Journal editorial supporting the bombings. “Would we judge Harry Truman better today if he had eschewed his nuclear option in favor of 7,000 casualties a week; that is, if he had been more considerate of the lives of the enemy than of the lives of his men?”
Maybe not. But the fact is that soldiers fight and die. That’s their job description. Civilians, on the other hand, are, by definition, bystanders. They should never be intentionally targeted, even if the alternative is sacrificing the lives of soldiers.
Think about it: a SWAT team surrounding a government office full of terrorists holding hostages would never blow the entire building up, killing everyone inside, just because some police officers would likely die trying to retake the office.
Yet writers like Stephens insist that the Japanese deaths were a less-costly means to a legitimate end. But this argument sounds strikingly similar to the arguments that Muslim terrorists make to justify their violence.
ISIS: we must engage in and publicly broadcast wanton acts of violence when we conquer an enemy city because our behavior scares subsequent cities into surrendering without a fight, thus saving more lives.
Al-Qaeda: we must terrify the American government into changing its foreign policy by staging horrifying, mass-casualty attacks on its landmarks.
Most Americans find this sort of thinking horrific when we are its victims. We, understandably, consider flying a plane into a building much more abhorrent than traditional acts of war.
Although elements of modern warfare—guns, missiles, etc.—can and do cause civilian deaths, they are not guaranteed to do so. A bullet fired from a gun and a missile fired from a fighter jet can be aimed at a particular military target, thus leaving at least the chance that civilians will not be harmed.
But nuclear weapons, just like modern acts of mass-casualty terrorism, offer no such possibility.
Anyone who drops a nuclear bomb on a city or flies a plane into a building or blows up a mosque or attacks a U.N. shelter knows that he is murdering babies and mothers, refugees and aid workers, students and teachers, invalids and doctors, worshippers and clergy, or other noncombatants.
This is why most Muslims around the world, including me, consider terrorism religiously forbidden.
This is why President Truman should have pursued any and all alternatives to nuclear warfare seventy years ago.
And this is why the whole world, especially post-9/11 America, should abhor the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki today.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on AtlantaMuslim.com. Edward Mitchell is an Atlanta attorney who serves as News Editor of AtlantaMuslim.com and previously worked as a freelance reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta and recently joined the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta. Edward received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and his graduate degree from Georgetown University Law Center, where he served as president of the law school’s Muslim Students Association. Follow him on Twitter @edmovie. His views in his article are his own.