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Ben Shapiro, Keyboard Drone Pilot

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro cheered Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the escalation of hostilities with Iran with a simple underlying message — American lives matter in a way that Iranian lives do not.

Ben Shapiro speaks at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

After the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, progressive journalist Emma Vigeland explained why this was such a dangerous and unjustifiable escalation in US-Iranian relations by using a straightforward analogy.

The way to respond to an argument by analogy is to point out important disanalogies. (A disanalogy between X and Y is just anything that X and Y don’t have in common.) Right-wing media figure Ben Shapiro tried to do exactly that in his response to Vigeland’s tweet.

To hear Shapiro and other right-wing commentators wax indignant about Soleimani “killing Americans,” you might think the late general was leading the Quds Force in raids somewhere in rural Wisconsin to murder random American citizens in their beds. The Americans he was accused of killing (or helping Iraqi factions to kill) were, by and large, uniformed soldiers engaged in a military occupation and counterinsurgency operations in a foreign land.

It’s true, of course, that Soleimani was responsible for ordering operations targeted at Americans, and that Pompeo was not. But is this really enough to establish that Vigeland’s analogy doesn’t work?

Relevant and Irrelevant Disanalogies

When I teach my students at Perimeter College about arguments by analogy, I always emphasize that an argument by analogy can only be refuted by pointing out significant and relevant disanalogies (or by showing that the original analogies aren’t relevant or significant). If I say “X and Y are similar in respects A and B, so this gives us a reason to think they’ll be similar in respect C as well,” and you want to undermine this argument, you need to do more than point out any respect D in which X and Y are different. You need to show that D is important to the original point.

No two situations are exactly the same, but it doesn’t follow that we can’t learn anything from one that we can apply to another. What you need is a respect D (or better yet, respects D, E, F, and G) that’s relevant to whether or not X and Y can reasonably be expected to be similar in respect C.

There were doubtless cases in which Mike Pompeo ordered strikes and raids directed against members (or suspected members) of the Quds Force during his years as CIA director. An Iranian taking umbrage at Vigeland for comparing Soleimani to Pompeo could point out that a difference is that Pompeo killed Iranians while Soleimani did not. (Of course, the theocratic government of Iran has killed lots of Iranians — for example, it massacred Iranian leftists after the revolution — but the part of the state led by Soleimani was exclusively focused on operations outside of the country.)

If we don’t accept that “Pompeo killed Iranians while Soleimani didn’t kill Iranians” is sufficient to establish that Pompeo is worse than Soleimani, it’s not clear why “Soleimani killed Americans while Pompeo didn’t kill Americans” should establish that Soleimani was worse than Pompeo.

Self-Defense and “Foreign Soil”

Shapiro’s point that Soleimani was “on foreign soil” is even odder. If Vigeland’s hypothetical Iranian drone attack on Pompeo had taken place while Pompeo was out of the country — as he presumably often was during his years as CIA director — would that make it significantly more legitimate in Shapiro’s eyes? How about if Pompeo had been in Baghdad?

Iran and the United States are both foreign powers in Iraq, but Iran is at least a close neighbor with all sorts of organic ties in Iraq. That doesn’t mean that Iran’s side of the brutal proxy war that’s been fought there is legitimate. It does mean that it’s bizarrely inconsistent to paint Soleimani as a wicked terrorist for killing US soldiers in Iraq while at the same time bringing up the fact that Soleimani was “on foreign soil” to justify assassinating him.

Shapiro’s point that Soleimani was plotting further attacks on American forces there seems to be directed at Vigeland’s observation that Iran in her hypothetical would have a stronger claim to self-defense. But the mere fact that Soleimani may have been preparing new moves in an ongoing proxy war doesn’t do anything to establish that the United States had a good claim to self-defense. To make a judgment about that, you’d have to look at the entire history of the US-Iranian relations going back to the 1953 coup that put the Shah in power, and then forward to the United States imposing brutal sanctions on Iran and invading and occupying its neighbors.

The Hidden Premise

One of the most telling things about Shapiro’s response to Vigeland is that, in exclusively focusing on Quds operations against American soldiers in Iraq, Shapiro is neglecting far more compelling instances of Soleimani’s brutality — for example, his role in shaping the Assad government’s brutal response to the Syrian uprising in 2012. Of course, the Pompeos of the world couldn’t condemn the Iranian regime’s indifference to civilian life in Syria without severe hypocrisy, but if he’d brought that up, Shapiro might have at least had the beginnings of a case. So why didn’t he?

Perhaps his tweet is best understood as what logicians call an enthymeme — an argument in which not all of the premises are explicitly stated. The fact that Soleimani targeted Americans and Pompeo did not doesn’t look like a relevant premise to the rest of us because we don’t accept the implicit premise that American lives matter in a way that Iranian lives do not.

If that’s not what Shapiro meant, the onus is on him to provide an alternative explanation.