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During his trip to Germany, President Obama visited Dresden, the site of a World War II air raid. He signed a memorial book and lit a candle in honor of those who died in the bombing. Obama was making an unspoken apology for the bombing, and also drawing a false moral equivalence between violence done to start a war and violence done to end it.
One can argue that the Dresden raid was militarily unnecessary. One can argue that the resulting firestorm was a tragedy. But one can also argue that Germany surrendered 12 weeks later, so the bombing may well have played a role in the decision.
The concept of proportionality holds for ordinary attacks. If a man punches me, I can punch him back. But if a man breaks down my door and attacks me with a knife, I need not turn my back, rush to the kitchen, and try to select a knife of equal length. I can use any means available to defend myself and my loved ones. I can grab a gun and shoot the man. At least, that is the law in most parts of America.
The same principle applies to nations. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan started an aggressive war. They seized the lands of their neighbors. They committed unspeakable atrocities. They murdered tens of millions of civilians. For years, the outcome hung in the balance.
Those who fought the German Nazis and the Japanese fascists were in the same position as the homeowner faced by the knife-wielding intruder. No rational person would demand that they measure each action precisely, to be sure it matched the actions of the aggressor to the millimeter and was not “disproportional.”
True, we must not sink to the level of the aggressors. We must not practice genocide or commit horrible atrocities. But to go further and demand that we abide by the Marquess of Queensbury rules, while our opponents attack us with the methods of an alley fight, is to doom us to certain defeat − and probable death.
Who but an enemy would make such a demand? Who but a self-destructive fool would comply with it?
The criminal who kicked in the door and attacked the homeowner with a knife was responsible for his own death − not the homeowner, and not the gun. The monsters who ran concentration camps were responsible for the firestorm in Dresden, not the Allied officials who ordered the raid, and not the airmen who carried it out. It was literally a case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.
The point is not only that if the Nazis had been stopped before they grew strong, the victims of Nazism could have been saved. The point is also that Germany could have been spared from terrible destruction. The same holds for other would-be aggressors, including Iran.
That was the lesson President Obama should have taught the world as he visited Dresden.That was the opportunity he missed. Instead of offering veiled apologies for Dresden, and for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he should have pointed out the obvious cause-and-effect relationship. If he had done so, he would have gone a long way toward securing peace in the world.
Would-be aggressors must be told bluntly that our response may be very far from “proportional.” When we go out of our way to reassure them that we will not “over-react,” we invite further aggression. And in the era of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, that aggression may well be catastrophic.
The president should have said, “If you attack our friends with weapons of mass destruction, we will react as if you attacked us. People who force human beings to hide in sewers may end up hiding in sewers themselves − in Dresden, or in Tehran.”
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