Tuesday, July 12, 2005

As a member of ZMag Blog, I made some comments on an article written by Paul Street, who claims the attacks in London were "a price of empire" that Prime Minister Blair and President Bush "are willing for us to pay". My thoughts set off something of a furor, and so I have some clarifications for the forum. (This is due to the word limit on that blog, as well as the asinine 20 minute wait period between posts.) Mr. Street, in a follow-up, ripped apart my arguments quite nimbly.

Hello, all. I never thought of setting off such a firestorm there, so here are some clarifications (and some amplifications):

I generally agree with the idea of 'moral universalism', first introduced to my thinking via the writings of Chomsky, by which the same ethical standards we apply to others are used to judge our own actions. The elegance of the idea is not that all are equal morally, but rather that the measure by which their actions are judged is the same. So, if we imagine murder to be wrong (and I suppose most people do), it is not relevant who is committing the act, for murder would be equally wrong in either case. In this way, intent is immediately dismissed as meaningless. By intending to free Iraq, we have ended up with the deaths of well over 20,000 Iraqi civilians. But their murder was not our intent. We place a much higher premium on human life, I believe, than terrorists who purposefully slaughter civilians without remorse for political aims. But that is still mass murder, regardless of our intent, right? (Adjusting for size of population, the toll of Iraqi civilian dead thus far is roughly equal to 236,000 Americans, which is nearly 79 times the magnitude of the toll of September 11.)

I strongly agree with exploring and developing alternate sources of energy. I paid $32 at the pump today, and eventually that money may go to end up funding the work of terrorists and other murderers. So, if not simply for the environmental damage, I'd like to stop helping a lot of that money flow into the hands of terrorists via the Saudi royal family and their oil ministers and barons, for example.

The central question one is lead to pose from Street's original post (which set off this spirited discussion from all of us) is whether the respective leaders of the US and UK governments are actually "willing to have us pay" the price of the war in Iraq with such gruesome attacks as befell London last Thursday. If so, it would follow that there are higher priorities for our respective leaders than protecting human life, which is sanctified in the President's mind. (Whether the Prime Minister agrees on the "sanctity" of life is an open question, for I don't really know.)

Finally, on the matter of justice in the light of the brutal attacks against Londoners on July 7, I draw a sharp distinction between it and revenge. Let's refer to the definition of "vengeance": in a word, retribution, which I interpret to imply a certain equality. You take out one of my eyes and I take out one of yours, as Hammurabi dictated. Ghandi is credited with observing that the only effect of this writ large is a world of the blind. Justice? "... the quality of being fair and reasonable" (The New Oxford American Dictionary [2001], 923) Is such a draconian law of Hammurabi's devising 'reasonable'? No, because there is nothing to ensure eyes being taken out from happening again, nothing to deter it but rather encourage its incidence by inciting people to poke each other's eyes out and, thereby, seek a strange conception of justice.

But how do retribution and justice fit within the context of terrorism, namely our response to it? The retributive action feeds oxygen to the fire, though it can be masked in the guise of justice. For instance, by overthrowing the tyranny of the Hussein regime and waging the ensuing war and occupation, over 20,000 Iraqi civilians are dead, but the rest have been freed of the former despot's brutality. This is simple. Assuming Iraq had any sort of role in the attacks of September 11 (almost completely ruled out by now), atrocities all their own, this would be such unreasonable retribution. Surely, Prime Minister Blair is not seeking to indescriminately murder fifty people from whatever country last Thursday's murderers take residence, right? For the sake of humanity, I hope not. Such an act would be blind retribution.

British journalist George Monbiot spoke of the idea of retributive *justice*. If one cuts off your right hand, instead of chopping off his you have him perform all of the lost functions of your right hand for the rest of his life. (How one could apply such a principle vis-a-vis the scale of terrorist atrocities is something I am thinking about, but it is difficult.)

I hope that clears up some things.

4 comments:

David Masciotra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Masciotra said...

I don't remember much of Street's original post, but he is a bit too extreme in his rhetoric. It overshadows his points in many cases.

I made a similar point on my blog. I said that because the CIA and National Intelligence Council warned Bush that invading Iraq would increase terrorism and make the world more dangerous, he and Blair are somewhat responsible for the attacks. Their actions led to more terror, and they knew that would happen.

Like I said, I can't remember how Street phrased, but I can assume he used a lot of hyperbolic and overly dramatic language.

Good post, even though I am more critical of the war in Iraq than you.

http://soldierofthought.blogspot.com

Frederic Christie said...

"I generally agree with the idea of 'moral universalism', first introduced to my thinking via the writings of Chomsky, by which the same ethical standards we apply to others are used to judge our own actions. The elegance of the idea is not that all are equal morally, but rather that the measure by which their actions are judged is the same. So, if we imagine murder to be wrong (and I suppose most people do), it is not relevant who is committing the act, for murder would be equally wrong in either case. In this way, intent is immediately dismissed as meaningless. By intending to free Iraq, we have ended up with the deaths of well over 20,000 Iraqi civilians. But their murder was not our intent. We place a much higher premium on human life, I believe, than terrorists who purposefully slaughter civilians without remorse for political aims."

But Chomsky also clearly states that one is responsible for the PREDICTABLE CONSEQUENCES of one's behavior. We're not psychic: We can't ever know someone's intent. Their actions are enough. Of course, in this case, the notion that the 20,000 deaths wasn't our intent is no more comforting than the notion that the Nazis didn't "really" want to kill Jews: they just wanted them expelled. It was just a nasty side-effect of the war that they had to gas 'em. And on and on. Everyone claims good behavior.

The premium we place on human life is shown by the fact that we are responsible for possibly millions dead in Iraq and Vietnam, to pick two at random, for actions that were wholly unnecessary, illegal, immoral, and served to expand American colonial power and not any notion of freedom.

OBL undoubtedly says he has a great value for human life. We don't believe him.

Remember that, no matter what one thinks, the current claim that we are democratizing Iraq is still killing 100,000 people for political aims.

"I strongly agree with exploring and developing alternate sources of energy. I paid $32 at the pump today, and eventually that money may go to end up funding the work of terrorists and other murderers."

And you should be paying far more, if oil prices reflected the true social debits/costs of oil consumption, production, distribution and allocation.

"So, if not simply for the environmental damage, I'd like to stop helping a lot of that money flow into the hands of terrorists via the Saudi royal family and their oil ministers and barons, for example."

Many of whom we control, by the way, indicating that US elites don't really care about terror. Not surprising, considering where the moujahadeen came from and what we've done for them over the past twenty years.

"The central question one is lead to pose from Street's original post (which set off this spirited discussion from all of us) is whether the respective leaders of the US and UK governments are actually "willing to have us pay" the price of the war in Iraq with such gruesome attacks as befell London last Thursday."

Of course they are.

"If so, it would follow that there are higher priorities for our respective leaders than protecting human life, which is sanctified in the President's mind."

Hegemony or survival.

"(Whether the Prime Minister agrees on the "sanctity" of life is an open question, for I don't really know.)"

People's beliefs and excuses don't especially interest me. But Blair, as Palast has documented, is at least as crass as Bush; probably much more so, actually.

"Finally, on the matter of justice in the light of the brutal attacks against Londoners on July 7, I draw a sharp distinction between it and revenge. Let's refer to the definition of "vengeance": in a word, retribution, which I interpret to imply a certain equality. You take out one of my eyes and I take out one of yours, as Hammurabi dictated. Ghandi is credited with observing that the only effect of this writ large is a world of the blind. Justice? "... the quality of being fair and reasonable" (The New Oxford American Dictionary [2001], 923) Is such a draconian law of Hammurabi's devising 'reasonable'? No, because there is nothing to ensure eyes being taken out from happening again, nothing to deter it but rather encourage its incidence by inciting people to poke each other's eyes out and, thereby, seek a strange conception of justice."

All very supportable, and of course the Left, including Street, has proposed police action, the type of which has been among the only documentably successful strategy against terrorists.

"But how do retribution and justice fit within the context of terrorism, namely our response to it? The retributive action feeds oxygen to the fire, though it can be masked in the guise of justice. For instance, by overthrowing the tyranny of the Hussein regime and waging the ensuing war and occupation, over 20,000 Iraqi civilians are dead, but the rest have been freed of the former despot's brutality. This is simple."

And they only were under that brutality thanks to extensive US action both for the Ba'ath Party more generally in the pre-Saddam period and for Saddam in particular. And now they will continue to be under a new neo-liberal and colonial rule. Saddam's regime, as Halliday and von Sponeck made clear, was monstrous, but it also provided for the people. In terms of economic democracy, Iraq probably has far less of it now.

One evaluates options looking at the choices available. There always were ways to overthrow Saddam in genuinely democratic ways, and there were always ways to install a democratic facade that would sooner tilt to fascism than real democracy.

"Assuming Iraq had any sort of role in the attacks of September 11 (almost completely ruled out by now), atrocities all their own, this would be such unreasonable retribution."

Very true.

"Surely, Prime Minister Blair is not seeking to indescriminately murder fifty people from whatever country last Thursday's murderers take residence, right?"

Who knows? Even if he isn't, the fact is that he doesn't care in the slightest.

If I were to fire a rocket into a crowded house but only intended to kill one man, would you say, "Well, at least he only really wanted to kill that one guy, we can let the rest slide?" Or would you hold me to a similar or even higher standard for my callous brutality?

"British journalist George Monbiot spoke of the idea of retributive *justice*. If one cuts off your right hand, instead of chopping off his you have him perform all of the lost functions of your right hand for the rest of his life. (How one could apply such a principle vis-a-vis the scale of terrorist atrocities is something I am thinking about, but it is difficult.)"

The way we deal with any criminal: Imprisonment, fines, seizure of assets for reparation, etc.

Graeme Cheadle said...

I completely agree with Fredric.

I don't think Street's rhetoric is "extreme," "overly dramatic," "hyperbolic" or tends to "overshadows his points," but that's just my opinion.

More important are the key points he raises: elites don't give a damn about any "collateral damage" they inflict, either on a massive scale (20,000 - 200,000 in Iraq), as a predictable consequence of waging an illegal war of aggression and occupation against that country, or on a smaller but still atrocious scale (52 and counting in London) as an equally predictable "blowback" effect of said war; the former can be callously ignored, the latter can be conveniently and cynically manipulated to increase public support for the very policies which increase the likelihood of the kind of brutal acts we saw in London last week happening again.

http://darknessbeforethedawn.blogspot.com