Sometimes a statement or argument sounds plausible only because of how vague it is. But when asked “what does it really mean?” and elaborated on, it crumbles quickly to the ground.
A few weeks ago during the Republican debate, Donald Trump defended his desire to kill the innocent family members of terrorists – their mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, children, and babies. I tore down some of those arguments previously and pointed out how evil and twisted Trump’s view on this issue was, but there was one exchange during the debate I did not mention:
In the clip, Rand Paul stated that in order to kill the innocent family members of terrorists, we would have to violate the Geneva Conventions and “defy every norm that is America.”
Trump responded concisely, saying “So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
On its face, the one liner sounds plausible. If someone is trying to kill you, of course you can kill them. That’s what the right to self defense is about after all. All Trump is saying is that we can defend ourselves by killing those intending to do us harm.
But what does the statement really mean? The pronouns and the vagueness they maintain are the only reasons this example sounds persuasive at all.
“So . . . they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
Let’s fill in the pronouns with their antecedents.
“they” refers to the terrorists
“us” likely refers to Americans in general (military and civilians; for those that think it’s just civilians, such as our innocent family members, I’ll include this as a 2nd possibility below)
“we” refers to Americans again
“them” refers to innocent family members of terrorists
Re-stated now, the one-liner appears as:
“So . . . the terrorists can kill us Americans, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”
To which the appropriate response now becomes “Uhh . . . of course not. Why would we want to kill the innocent family members of terrorists? The terrorists are the ones we should punish.”
The second possibility appears as:
“So . . . the terrorists can kill American civilians, but we Americans can’t kill the innocent family members of terrorists?”
One more time, of course not. We classify the act by terrorists of killing innocent civilians as immoral. If we do the exact same thing, how are we any better? Punish the crime-doers. Don’t punish their children.
Again, the initial plausibility vanishes frighteningly quickly. It’s as if a blindfold was over the reader’s eyes, and one simple request for elaboration was enough to remove it.