"I'm just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden — he's a very smart guy, I've spent a lot of time thinking about him — and I nearly got him once. I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him."
Did President Clinton say these words a mere 10 hours before 9/11?
It's an "alleged" tape. Kandahar actually has a population of some 400,000.
But, especially in light of the way the media has covered the civilian death toll in Gaza, it's at the very least a great hypothetical.
Would it be worth killing 300 innocent women and children to have killed Osama bin Laden in 1998?
In retrospect, knowing what was to happen three years later (this was, supposedly, a reference to 1998), would it have been worth it to stop 9/11? Is there any doubt? And does that make us no better than him? I think not.
Terrorists who hide among women and children, using them as a human shield, expect that the rest of the world will not "sink to their level." They expect that we will value the lives of their families more than they do. And if you had asked me, hypothetically, before 9/11, before terrorism literally hit home, I would almost certainly have agreed with what President Clinton might have said: We were better than them, because we would not sacrifice their wives and children to kill them, even as they would risk their own family's lives to try to save themselves in hopes of killing us another day.
But none of it is hypothetical anymore, not for us, and certainly not for Israel. Israel is known for its willingness to trade over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences, for the return of a single Israeli soldier. It is also known for giving warnings, where possible, before bombing homes where terrorists are barricaded with women and children.
Some of the civilian deaths in Gaza have been the product of local rockets misfiring, or civilians caught in the crossfire; many have been the result of rockets aimed at terrorists who surround themselves with women and children. Women and children who may or may not be their own, may or may not be there willingly, and may or may not have known of any warnings.
Is this Israel's fault? I don't think so. Is it their fault that terrorists would surround themselves with women and children, knowing they are targets, in an effort to live to kill another day? If those women and children die — and of course no one wants that to happen — it is the terrorists who are to blame, not the nation seeking to protect their innocent citizens from terror.
Of course, it should not be this way. We should never have to ask how many innocent lives are worth taking to rid the world of an evil person. It is utilitarianism run amok, commodification gone haywire. This is not how we deal with war criminals; they are brought to justice. But how do you bring people to justice in what is, essentially, a terrorist state?
There is no justice; terrorists will be celebrated. In Israel, the killers of the Palestinian teenager are being held for murder. In Gaza, a crowd cheered as a dead man with a rifle in his hands was pulled from a bombed building, along with women and children.
And was that his wife? Were those his children? Or had he sent his own family away and was instead using women and children who were hiding as his shields? If this seems to matter, perhaps it is only because it makes even clearer the depth of evil that is at the core of terrorism. We are better than that.
It is because of this that we even debate what to do when faced with such evil. And it is because, unlike the Israelis, we do not live under a storm of rockets or on top of a web of tunnels that reasonable people can disagree.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.