In what appears to be a tragic accident, Iranian air defenses shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, Flight 752, killing all 176 on board. The deadly mistake occurred during heightened U.S.-Iran tensions, after the United States killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, which led some Americans to blame the deaths on Donald Trump. Others countered that Iran was entirely responsible.
This debate showcases differing notions of how causality and foreseeability create moral culpability. It also showcases how people jump from one model to another based on their biases.
Generally, if someone is in full possession of their faculties, we hold them morally responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their acts.
If you intentionally mow someone down with your car, you’re morally responsible for their injuries. If you shut your front door, creating a disturbance in the air that converges with hundreds of other microdisturbances to make a cyclist on the other side of town sneeze and fall into traffic, you’re not morally responsible, because that wasn’t reasonably foreseeable when you chose to shut the door.
With Trump and the Ukrainian airline attack, disagreement falls along two main lines:
- Was Trump killing Soleimani sufficiently causally related to Iran shooting down the plane to assign moral culpability?
- Was a passenger jet getting shot down a sufficiently foreseeable consequence of Trump killing Soleimani to assign moral culpability?
On the first point, some Trump defenders believe Trump would have had to order the plane shot down himself to be culpable. Others argue that Trump can’t be culpable because Iran initiated this escalation, or because Trump cannot be held responsible for Iran’s action. But for many who do not reflexively defend the president, Trump choosing to escalate hostilities contributed to a sequence of events that ended with the plane exploding, which may come with some moral culpability.
On the second point, some Trump defenders claim Trump is blameless because downing the plane was an illogical and disproportionate response to America’s actions. By contrast, some Trump critics seem happy to automatically blame Trump for anything remotely related to his actions. But the more interesting question is whether Trump should have known something like this could happen, and whether that adds some moral culpability.
It’s common to see people take different stances on causation and moral culpability based on partisanship. Someone who would have called Obama a war criminal for Flight 752 starts asking “how could he have known?” when it happens on Trump’s watch. (Some have even gone so far as to blame Obama instead of Trump.)
Not everyone is hyperpartisan, but even those trying to look at the event objectively have biases. And it’s difficult to spot them, because there’s never been a series of occurrences exactly like this: U.S. Kills Foreign General → Several Intervening Events → Airliner Shot Down. As a result, we lack a precedent for understanding our own actions and we’re insulated against charges of hypocrisy.
The attack on Flight 752 happened downstream of Trump authorizing Soleimani’s death. It occurred after, and probably would not have happened otherwise, but Soleimani’s death did not directly cause the jet to go down, and multiple things had to happen in between. For example, Iran could have grounded all civilian aircraft before firing missiles at Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops. However, as Elizabeth Picciuto explained in Arc, even if one party is fully responsible — in this case, Iran — others may still bear partial responsibility as well. Responsibility is not a fixed pie to be divvied up.
Conversations about moral culpability are especially difficult regarding foreign policy, which treats lives lost like figures on one side of a magical ledger. The other side, the part we’re told “balances out” the loss of life, is a counterfactual narrative that must be accepted on faith (or not accepted, also on faith) from partisans whose interests we can barely fathom.
For my part, I believe President Trump is to some extent morally culpable for the deaths of the passengers on that plane. I believe this because he’s responsible for the primary act of escalation — withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and imposing sanctions — and for multiple acts in the recent chain of escalation that led to Iran shooting down Flight 752. Even if Iran initiated this recent sequence, Trump made choices that heightened tensions, which made fatal accidents more likely.
And it was reasonably foreseeable that killing Soleimani and threatening Iran afterwards could lead Iran to fear American airstrikes on its territory, potentially leading to air-defense errors.
It doesn’t matter if Iran fired on the plane intentionally or by mistake. It doesn’t matter whether, from the Iranians’ point of view, this ought to have happened. What matters is that, from the American point of view, it quite plausibly could have. Presidents, presidential advisers, and military commanders have a moral responsibility to consider plausible outcomes.
Discussions of moral culpability for downstream incidents are further complicated by the question of consequences. Let’s say Trump bears some responsibility for the deaths of the airline passengers. Okay, but responsibility such that what? Should he be imprisoned? Removed from office? Censured? Disliked incrementally more than he already is? Tweeted at angrily? How should we make Trump’s culpability manifest?
When the consequences are left undefined, people’s minds fill with phantoms. One side assumes that finding Trump morally culpable means their political opponents want him buried under the Hague; the other side assumes arguing that Trump isn’t morally culpable means their political opponents don’t care about the dead passengers. Because both these arguments are offensive, everyone takes offense, and the conversation fills with invective.
Since I’m assigning Trump some moral culpability for many civilian deaths, am I demanding he be dragged off to the Netherlands in handcuffs? Nope. That’s not how the magical foreign policy ledger works.
As horrifying as it is to contemplate, as much as we might feel complicit in the monstrous distillation of human beings to figures in a ledger, Trump’s moral culpability for the deaths of the 176 passengers on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 merits nothing but our redoubled opposition.