It is not permissible to deliberately target non-combatants with a weapon of mass destruction. That is a categorical and undeniable rule, but it is not the only categorical and undeniable rule. And when two or more such rules come into conflict we humans may be faced with a lack of permissible options. Ethics professors are skilled at spinning out such scenarios, confronting their students with hypothetical conundrums that allow no pure course of action — no acceptable course of action.
History, too, has a way of creating such scenarios. I don’t just mean the thousand everyday conflicts and conundrums that arise from life in our fallen world, but life-and-death decisions on a grand scale. Like a perverse ethics professor, history has a way of creating situations in which this or that unthinkable and impermissible act may seem to be the least monstrous of our sickeningly constricted options.
It may be that this was the case on August 6, 1945, and again on August 9, 1945, when the United States of America ended the war in the Pacific by deliberately targeting and killing 140,000 civilians in Hiroshima and then deliberately targeting and killing 80,000 civilians in Nagasaki.
Some think they know for sure that this was the case. Others think they know for sure that this was not the case. And many seem to relish the argument — agreeing as angrily as they disagree. But I do not know and I do not think that we can know what options did or did not appear available to President Truman and to the others who made and executed the decision to deliberately kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, terrorizing Imperial Japan into unconditional surrender.