On Saturday October 3rd, the United States military destroyed a hospital building in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing at least 22 people. When the northern city had been seized by Taliban at the end of September, U.S. officials were reluctant to utilize air power to prevent the capture due to their concern over civilian causalities. After Afghan forces continued to struggle over the next ten days to retake the city, the discriminate use of airstrikes to kill terrorists and support and protect American and Afghan forces again came into use. The attack on the hospital apparently took place following requests for assistance from Afghan forces taking enemy fire. According to reports, a U.S. Special Operations unit in communication with an AC-130 gunship called for the aircraft to hit the hospital building in a series of sustained attacks over the course of an hour.

Among the dead were ten patients and a dozen staff members. The patients included three children. Six of the patients were said to have burned to death in their beds. While Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has apparently suggested that constituent elements of the rules governing the use of air support, including a requirement for eyes on target, were not precisely followed, the attack was, he insists, an accident.

Without question, even the accidental destruction of the hospital and the killing of the innocent remains indescribably awful – save to say it was grievous, enraging, confounding, and a greatly despairing. But was it also something more? Even if it was accidental, was it criminally so? Was it something worse still? Was it an act of terror?

Self-described “ordinary radical” Shane Claiborne seems to think so. On the day of the attack, Claiborne chummed the twitter-waves with a post announcing he’s ashamed to be an American. Not being confident he was ever particularly proud to be one the post didn’t strike me as all that newsworthy. But he followed it up with another: “Our country bombed an Afghan hospital,” he wrote; “That sounds like terrorism.”

Now, on the one hand, this sort of silly moral equivalency is vintage Claiborne – as evidenced elsewhere, for example, in his foolish suggestion of similitude between the U.S. military in Iraq and Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. Such apparently willful swapping of specious and facile slander in place of serious moral judgment is angering. But what if this is the best Claiborne can do? What if what appears to be a lack of moral seriousness is really just a wealth of moral ignorance? If Claiborne really cannot tell the difference between an accidental airstrike and an act of terror then, rather than anger alone, the other required response is patient charity and remedial instruction.

One might begin by remembering that moral judgment is very difficult to render at any conceptual distance. Imagine learning that in south Chicago late last night a group of men knocked another unconscious then took a knife and slit him down the middle of his chest, deep enough that the blade went all the way through to the breastplate, severing a ten-inch span of healthy skin and muscle. How you morally assess this act will depend on whether your investigation reveals this was a group of angry gangbangers contributing to another bad night in a sometimes-dangerous part of town or whether it involved a group of caring surgeons attempting mitral valve surgery at the university hospital. Circumstances matter: we have to know the context, especially the intentions involved, the desired aim, and, importantly, something about the actors.

In our real-life case, the lead actor is the U.S. military. What would it mean for the American military to be involved in an act of terror? While the definition of just what constitutes a terrorist is notoriously debated, let’s agree that it involves at least the willful deployment of politically motivated violence against innocent civilians. Anyone who could see their way to believing that the U.S. military would intentionally target a hospital in order to kill civilians could do so only if their tin-foil hat slipped down and obscured clear vision. Accidents happen in any war, but the efforts of military command and those at the pointy end of the spear in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid civilian deaths have been exemplary these long 14 years. More than this, they have been strenuous to the degree that they expose our military professionals to greater harm.

Though I can hear my shrill detractors even now, really there’s a simple test: pay attention to our enemies. Ask yourself why the Taliban have mastered shielding themselves with women while engaging U.S. forces, why they flee into civilian crowds after launching an ambush, why enemy-snipers shelter in homes deliberately filled with families, or why old men and kids are made to mule explosives. Our enemies shield themselves with children because they know something about how Americans fight; and because they do, accidents like the destruction of a hospital are made more possible.

Compare the enemy’s defensive strategies with their offensive practices. A cursory look at the reports by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, or from any of a myriad other watchdog agencies will show that far more civilians have been targeted and killed by the Taliban and insurgent groups than have been killed by U.S. and coalition forces – this remains true year after year after year. Of course, when the enemy kills civilians it is “job well done” and when Americans do it is investigation, change in practice, and, when intentional atrocities have been uncovered, it is prosecution and punishment. America and American war making are not morally pure, not by a long shot. But I would guess is that if you lived under a tyrannical dictator about to be overthrown by a foreign power, you would want no one else kicking in your door than American fighters.

An overwhelming characteristic of violence is that it is violent. Open heart surgery is one kind of violence – an airstrike is another. Justly pursued – that is rightly intended – that airstrike, even when it goes terribly awry, has more in common with a surgical effort than with cold-blooded murder. It is impossible to categorize actions with one-to-one moral judgments until we know something about circumstances. Only then can we begin to judge whether the killing before us is murder; whether the sex act is rape; whether the cross-border incursion is an act of aggression; or whether the destruction of a hospital and the burning to death of convalescing children is a war crime, act of terror, or a terribly tragic accident. Reason, authority, and experience strongly endorse the likelihood that Saturday’s horror was simply the later.

To be sure, the investigation may well reveal that shortcuts were taken, that rules weren’t followed, and that mistakes cost lives. But the fact that we will learn from it and adjust procedures will once again show that the United States, by and large and as a matter of practice, controls the unleashing of lethal-force precisely by leashing it – and by not-too-often breaking free of that leash. How a people fights betrays their values.

Declaring this an accident does not bring the dead back to life. It does not salve the wounds of the grieving. But it just might mirror reality – that is to say, it just might tell the truth. Circumstances matter, and we all need to take care to consider them before passing moral judgment on anybody else; lest in trying to be prophetic we prove instead we’re just another libelous clown with an agenda and over-quick to condemn what we don’t understand, uncaring who we slander or what we misrepresent along the way.

Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence and Scholar of Christian Ethics, War, & Peace at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Photo Credit: Dmitry Terekhov via Flickr