A Journalist and the Principle of Distinction

A Marine-turned-journalist was suspended by the Blaze for taking some shots at ISIS while on assignment for them:

Jason Buttrill, a former Marine and a foreign affairs correspondent for the Glenn Beck-owned Blaze ... fired six times at ISIS fighters with a rifle while on the Mosul front.
"Exclusive: TheBlaze’s Jason Buttrill shoots at ISIS members and shares footage from the Mosul front," reads the headline. The story is still live on the site despite The Blaze's recalling Buttrill from Mosul and suspending him from the publication. 
The reprimand by The Blaze comes after Jason Stern of the Committee to Protect Journalists warned Buttrill that his actions could be deadly for other journalists in or near war zones. 
“Jason, journalists are detained and killed all over the world over false accusations of being combatants,” Stern tweeted on Friday. “This doesn't help.” 

I don't care much for the argument Stern is making. America's enemies haven't respected non-combatant roles like that of the journalist for at least half a century, so the idea that some journalist's misconduct will lead to more problems is a bit blind, I think.*
No, my question is about the ethics and legality of it. Mr. Buttrill was there as a journalist; should he be taking part in combat? I don't know the details, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that this was not self-defense. If someone isn't officially part of one of the combatant groups, and it is not self-defense, should that person engage in the fighting?

There is part of me that wonders what right-minded person would not shoot at members of ISIS, given the opportunity. But another part of me is bothered by this. Doesn't it violate the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants? If that's right, then Buttrill might have been an unlawful combatant.

Or, maybe I don't really understand this. I am not any kind of lawyer, so this is quite likely. Or, maybe in a war like this where the enemy doesn't make even a pretense of following the law it just doesn't matter. And, of course, whether it's lawful or not doesn't necessarily answer the ethical question.
Any thoughts?
*I have the same problem with arguments against torture that go "if we do it, they'll do it." I am not supporting torture, but that particular argument against it doesn't make sense since pretty much every enemy we've faced for the last century has used torture against captured American soldiers. Maybe the Nazi's were an exception, but the Japanese certainly did, and every enemy since.


E Hines said...

Is he, as a journalist, present at the front (the very front, in a position to take plausible shots at, say, the Daesh) to support the war effort with the nature of his journalism, or is he there to report objectively on the doings at that front? If the former, he's a legitimate target for all that he's nominally a civilian.

If he's present at the front (the very front, in a position to take plausible shots at, say, the Daesh) and sees his fellow nationals coming under fire from, let's say, those Daesh, does he not have an obligation to defend those lives in more concrete ways than writing after the fact about their deaths--perhaps by contributing to, or being the sole source of, return fire?

Let's look at an entirely different scenario. A journalist happens onto an automobile accident in the immediate aftermath, or perhaps he witnesses it from close by. One of the cars starts to burn with an occupant trapped. Is the journalist obligated to only record the incident and the death, or is he obligated to take part in the rescue attempt? In the latter, he'll be counted as making news, being part of the story, rather than reporting the news. But in the former, he's also making himself part of the story by simply standing around watching and letting an innocent die when he could have intervened.

There's no possibility a journalist is ever not part of the story, and there's very little measurable, distinguishable possibility for assessing whether a journalist at the front is a combatant or not, independently of whether a terrorist might even be interested in the distinction.

Distinction isn't as cut and dried as some just war theorists would like us to believe. Very few principles are easily implemented in the real world.

Stern's tweet is disingenuous, too, as it so clearly that assumes that journalists are everywhere and always not combatants.

That's the principle. Buttrill's own tweet, presented by The Blaze does seem to fit, though, within that small measurable window, as it pretty strongly indicates that he'd placed himself on the wrong side of distinction: he was just taking potshots for the sake of being able to say he'd taken the potshots--checking an item off his bucket list. In the particular case, the suspension seems (only that, because all the facts are not presented) warranted.

Eric Hines

E Hines said...

I have the same problem with arguments against torture that go "if we do it, they'll do it."

I have a problem with this argument, also, but along a different line. A behavior is intrinsically moral or immoral. It is not moral or immoral because someone else is or isn't doing it or has or hasn't done it before. Repeating an immoral behavior, even lots of times, only spreads the immorality around, repetition cannot legitimize it.

Eric Hines

raven said...

This is not a fight between armies. It is not a fight that takes into account non-vs-combatant.

ISIS has declared their intention to utterly destroy Western Civilization , all of it, civilians , women, children, the lot. The Louvre, the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Notre Dame Cathedral. All of it.

Take them at their word and respond accordingly.
The reporter should have been asked one question.
"Did you get a hit?"

Before this is done,all those pretty little behavioral injunctions will be tossed out the window. One Beslan here and every Hillary voting soccer mom in the country will be screaming to nuke somebody.

Grim said...

Mike Yon was ahead of the curve.

Tom said...

For me, Robin Moore was the iconic journalist-combatant. Although a civilian, JFK allowed him to embed w/ 5th Special Forces in Vietnam. As part of preparing to embed, he went through airborne school and the SF Qualifications course. The photos I've seen of him he was holding an M-16 and presumably he used it.

For self-defense, journalist Joe Galloway apparently fought defensively with the 7th Cav at the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965. (Although a civilian, he was apparently awarded a bronze star for helping rescue a wounded soldier under enemy fire there.)

Grim said...

Mike Yon was ahead of the curve in getting in trouble for it. :) Although when he picked up a rifle and fired shots in Iraq, they were satisfied with saying, "Don't do that again or you're going home."

Texan99 said...

I don't care at all about whether a journalist preserves his pristine journalistic disinterestedness; if need be, he can withdraw himself from reporting the story (other than as a lay witness) once he becomes part of it, no harm done. I do think there's a legitimate issue whether people like journalists, ambulance drivers, and hospital administrators should help erode the already troubled convention that these people should be viewed as non-combatants. In an emergency, I won't presume to judge what they do, but there should be strong institutional safeguards against drifting into such a role thoughtlessly and especially against flying a false flag in order to get access.

raven said...

Ha. My grandfather was gassed in France driving an ambulance....
of course, gas does drift- not exactly directed fire.

MikeD said...

From the strictest sense, yes he was an unlawful combatant. He had neither uniform nor command structure that is required to be considered a legal combatant. Mind you, the individuals he shot at are also illegal combatants, so in a sense, I guess you could call it "gang warfare" and sidestep the whole issue. In other words, can you be an illegal combatant when the other side is comprised of illegal combatants? I'd say no.

If it is a matter of self-defense, all this hand wringing goes out the window, of course. If it's "pick up a rifle and get to shooting or we could be overrun", then I don't care if it's a 10 year old girl, she's got every right to protect herself from the likes of Daesh (she actually has more to lose than you or I, I'd wager). But if he just wanted to shoot a few terrorists and wanted to be able to claim he had done so, then about the most you could pin on him (in my opinion) is if local law enforcement wanted to tag him for attempted murder. And I kind of doubt they do.

Tom said...

Mike Yon was ahead of the curve in getting in trouble for it. :)

Aha. Yep, he was.

Eric and Tex, I'm not concerned here with objectivity or whether the journalist becomes part of the story, just the ethics & legality of it. My first headline for this was going to be about "War Tourism," which is kind of what this case seems like.

raven, I agree, and I disagree. I don't really hold anything against this guy. As I said, what right-minded person wouldn't want to shoot at Daesh? On the other hand, if someone really wanted to get into the fight, there are a number of militias over there who'll take recruits. We've discussed one or two here.

Also, I don't think you're right about the soccer moms. We had 9/11 here and a whole lot of Americans blamed America and marched against the conventional campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tom said...

Eric: I have a problem with this argument, also, but along a different line. A behavior is intrinsically moral or immoral. It is not moral or immoral because someone else is or isn't doing it or has or hasn't done it before.

Sure, I agree. But in addition, the pragmatic argument against torture is simply factually wrong in this case.