After nearly three years in office, President Donald Trump may have finally gone too far. His boneheaded attempt to enmesh another member of America’s gilded class into legal trouble with the help of a foreign country has awakened the full moral outrage of his political rivals. They are out for blood and, at long last, they may get it. “The president must be held accountable,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a stern address announcing an impeachment inquiry. “No one is above the law.”
There are so many reasons why Trump should be the object of our moral outrage, not least his role in the violent deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Anyone interested in the integrity of American democracy should welcome such accountability. And yet there are even more consequential reasons why Trump should be the object of our moral outrage. Not least among them are his central role in the violent deaths of thousands of innocent people.
Since his emergence as a political figure, Trump has promised that if he ever attained power, he would use the U.S. military to inflict a massive bloodletting on others, including noncombatants. Unlike other campaign promises, Trump has delivered on this one. Since taking office, he has presided over skyrocketing rates of civilian casualties in America’s many foreign conflicts. Beneath the hue and cry of the impeachment announcement, more people are dying in wars that are being waged as Trump promised, with more brutality than ever.
The last few weeks provide several horrifying examples.
This September, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a wedding party was turned into a massacre after a commando raid by Afghan forces operating with U.S. support. Over 40 people were killed. Just days earlier, a drone strike in Nangarhar province blew up a gathering of pine nut farmers resting after their day’s harvest. “We had huddled together around small bonfires and we were discussing the security situation in our villages, but suddenly everything changed,” one survivor later told reporters. “There was destruction everywhere.” A letter that had been sent to local authorities informing them about the presence of the farmers failed to save them from the drone. As many as 30 people were killed, with 40 more injured.
As always, these attacks have been justified in the name of fighting terrorism. It’s unclear, however, who is spilling more innocent blood at this point. In the early years of occupying Afghanistan, the U.S. could rightfully claim that the Taliban insurgency was killing more civilians than the coalition. But, according to United Nations figures, the U.S. and its local allies have actually killed more civilians in Afghanistan this year than the Taliban. After Trump abruptly ended recent peace talks aimed at ending that war, it may continue to rage for years to come — even escalating in brutality as high-ranking officials in the administration gruesomely brag about the body counts they are racking up.
It’s not just Afghanistan, either. Independent investigations have shown huge civilian death tolls from the ramped up air wars waged on Trump’s watch in Iraq and Syria. The numbers are far greater than the publicly stated figures released by the Pentagon. And, under Trump, the number of incidents in which the U.S. military has denied or hidden civilian deaths seems to have increased.
What’s more, we’ve learned new details about another gruesome death toll in yet another theater of war. According to a just-released Amnesty International investigation looking into an incident in Somalia this past March, three innocent men traveling near Mogadishu were killed after being targeted by a U.S. drone strike. Like many of the recent dead in Afghanistan, these Somali men were farmers. They had been traveling in an SUV back to their homes after a day’s work, when their vehicle came into the sights of an American drone. That would be the last drive home of their lives. A friend of one of the dead, a 46-year-old man named Abdiqadir Nur Ibrahim, described the aftermath of the attack: “Abdiqadir’s body was completely destroyed but I recognized … his face that was burnt. … I also recognized his watch which was hanging from the front side of the car.”
A press release put out by the military’s Africa Command, or AFRICOM, on March 19 stated that the victims of this strike were “three terrorists,” but did not cite any evidence. The statement also added, somewhat confusingly, that the military was “aware of reports alleging civilian casualties” in the incident. To date, AFRICOM has not provided any more evidence to justify the strike, which took place amid an already growing tide of civilian casualties in Somalia. The military has not so much as indicated that the deaths of these men — the fathers of 21 children between them — are important enough to merit further investigation.
“This is just one of many cases of the U.S. military wantonly tarnishing large parts of the Somali population with the ‘terrorist’ label,” Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali researcher at Amnesty, said in a press release about the investigation into the attack. “No thought is given to the civilian victims or the plight of their grieving families left behind.”
In the post-9/11 era, the U.S. military has made a point of not publicizing the civilian death tolls from its operations. But studies by independent researchers and nongovernmental organizations conservatively put the number of civilians killed in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into the hundreds of thousands. The real figures are likely even higher. Trump, it is worth noting, is not the only one responsible for these deaths. The wars began long before he came into office, after all. But under his watch, and with his assent, they have been waged with more brutality and less apparent regard for innocent life.
During his 2015 campaign, Trump promised to “kill the families” of suspected terrorists. Recently he has begun publicly musing about killing millions of people in Afghanistan to end the war there, though, for now, he is still magnanimously congratulating himself for choosing that option. At a recent press conference with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump bragged about dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in the world earlier in his term. “We dropped it in Afghanistan,” he said. “It left a hole in the earth that looked like the moon. It looked like a crater from the moon. It’s still there. It was — nobody has ever seen anything like it.”
If Trump is going to be impeached, don’t fool yourself that what he is alleged to have done to Hunter Biden is the worst crime he committed while in office.
At the very least, Trump has strongly signaled that he has no problem with killing civilians and will not give anyone under his command a hard time for carrying out such killings. Trump has been willing to vocally defend those who do find themselves accused of war crimes, while punishing those who investigate them. It is no surprise that death tolls have skyrocketed on his watch and that military campaigns, many of which can be characterized as “wars of choice,” are being waged more brutally. There is little political pressure for it to be otherwise.
Does this matter? Do the extremely violent deaths of innocent people — wedding guests and farmers in distant countries — factor into the moral calculus we use to judge Trump as being fit or unfit for office? The American public seems only dimly interested in the ramped-up killings that have taken place on his watch. The whole thing has become routine. The Jewish historian Raul Hilberg once observed the banality of bureaucratic killing in a different time and place: Germany during the 1940s. “Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences,” Hilberg wrote about the society that collectively helped carry out a genocide. “They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desks.”
The U.S., for many reasons, is profoundly different from that regime. But Hilberg’s words are still an uncomfortable reminder of how terrible violence can become so ordinary we don’t even notice it, or let it factor into our moral image of ourselves. Even if Trump never shoots anyone directly, he and his administration are responsible for deaths on a scale that screams at us to take notice. If Trump is going to be impeached, don’t fool yourself that what he’s allegedly done to Hunter Biden is the worst crime he committed while in office.