Thursday, August 19, 2010

The end can never really justify the means

By Cristina Alarcon, The Province, July 25, 2010
Last week, Canadian Army captain Robert Semrau was convicted of disgraceful conduct in the shooting a badly wounded Taliban insurgent in Afghanistan. But a military panel acquitted him of murder.

The court martial in Gatineau, Que., had been told by an eyewitness that Capt. Semrau "could not live with himself if he left an injured human being -- and that no one should suffer like that."

The suggestion was, in other words, that the 36-year-old father of two children was engaged in a wartime mercy killing.

Around the world, the trial sparked much debate, and got me thinking about what I might do in the young captain's place.

That's not an easy task, as scenes of wartime chaos are but shadows on a TV screen glimpsed from the bulwarks of a comfy couch.

Still, I can try. The young insurgent's legs were severed, his innards protruding, a horrific sight to behold. It was something a paramedic might encounter in the aftermath of an airline crash.

I had the same sort of feeling that can sometimes come over me when dealing with the hopelessly chronically ill . . . though I always manage to shake it off.

Confronted by such wartime misery, would I still hold firm to my principles that the ends (relief of suffering) can never justify the means (killing)?

Or would the stress of wartime terror blur my usual moral clarity, my sense of the uniqueness of human worth?

Would I, like Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, be inspired to greater self-giving?

Dunant embarked on his great project in 1862 from the "chaotic disorder, despair unspeakable and misery of every kind" he earlier witnessed in the bloody Battle of Solferino in modern-day Italy.

As a pharmacist, I have witnessed the devastating psychological effects of war on men many years after combat.

Stress, much like drugs, can affect us in unpredictable ways. It can bring out the best and the worst in us. Still, our actions remain free.

Writing on his blog about the moral justification for killing in war, U.S. soldier-ethicist Pete Kilner points out that good rules of engagement provide guidelines to assist [the] decision-making process.

Nevertheless, given the complexity of combat, mistakes happen.

Kilner explains that the default setting for a human being is to possess the right not to be killed, so when a person is no longer a threat he should not be killed.

This is why it is morally wrong to kill a detainee or an incapacitated insurgent.

Still, Kilner maintains, the profession of arms has two moral codes. There's the public one, based on black-and-white legal rules, and private code, known only by those who have to do the messy work of war.

It's not healthy psychologically, he says, to have made difficult moral decisions that you cannot talk about publicly for fear of being punished.

The prosecution alleged that Semrau committed a mercy killing because he felt bound by a "soldier's pact" to end the suffering of gravely wounded combatants.

There is no defence for mercy killing in the law.

Nor is it, in my view, something that ought to be applauded.

Still, supporters argue it was unfair for a soldier to have to face prosecution for decisions made on the battlefield.

If during wartime, we can succumb to less than humane actions, what excuse is there for us at home in a comfortable world of Ritalin for the young, Viagra for the old -- and, as some propose, an overdose of pills to help us along, should kick-the-bucket time draw near?

We can be tempted to lose moral clarity, to lose the sense of the uniqueness of our species, of the fact that we are the ones for which the planet was made.

Though most of us would like to have it otherwise, the end or purpose of our actions can never justify the means.

If mercy killing is allowed in some instances, why not in others, and who is to decide?

Yes, from the sanctuary of my couch it is all too easy for me to judge.

Yet it also gives me a clearer perspective from which to respectfully ask: How could anyone in his right mind finish off a dying man as he would a dying horse?

Vancouver pharmacist Cristina Alarcon can be reached at

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