A Philosopher's Blog

Orlando & Terrorism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2016

On June 12, 2016 fifty people died in an Orlando Nightclub. 49 of these were victims of the 50th, who has been identified as Omar Mateen. This is the latest and the largest mass shooting in the United States. As always happens in such cases, there are inquiries into motives and, most importantly, into how such a slaughter was able to take place.

Mr. Mateen, the alleged shooter, was a 29 year old American who worked for the G4S security company. It has been claimed that he committed domestic violence against his then wife (although no charges were apparently filed), that he spoke of his hatred of blacks, gays and Jews, and a coworker has alleged that he often spoke of wanting to kill people. He was investigated by the F.B.I. in 2013 and 2014 in regards to suspected connections to terrorism. These investigations failed to yield adequate evidence for action to be taken against him and he was able to legally purchase the weapons used in the attack.

This mass shooting, like others before it, give rise to an important epistemic question: how can we know when a person will become a mass shooter (or terrorist)? While it is certainly tempting to infer that expressions of hate and expressed desires to engage in violence are good indicators, they are not. A little reflection and a little time on the internet show that hate is abundant as are expressions of desires to engage in violence. The vast majority of these people never make the move from expression to mass shooting. As such, while this sort of behavior is an indicator, it is a very weak indicator. What would be needed would be clearer evidence that a person is preparing to go from thought to action.

It might be believed that signs of connection to terrorism (such as expressing support or having some personal ties to terrorists) are good indicators. While this is also tempting, there are many who express support of terror (be it for ISIS or for using terror against minorities, women, LGBT people, etc.) yet never escalate from expressing support to murdering. There are also people who have personal ties with terrorists who themselves never become terrorists—in fact, these people include some who condemn terrorism.  As such, what would be needed is clearer evidence that there will be a transition from support or connections to violent action.

It could be claimed that there was adequate evidence Mateen was going to become a shooter and the F.B.I. failed in its investigation. This is, of course, a factual matter and one that would be addressed by investigating the investigation. While some might be inclined to believe that the F.B.I was sloppy or incompetent, it seems quite likely that there simply was not enough evidence to justify taking action against him. As it stands, this seems to be the case, despite Mateen allegedly calling 911 to express his loyalty to ISIS (and a mishmash of other groups that actually oppose each other). While ISIS has been happy to claim Mateen’s expression of fealty, this seems to be an affiliation of opportunity: there is currently no evidence that ISIS directed the attack nor evidence that Mateen had any substantial prior connection with ISIS. As such, the best hypothesis at this time is that Mateen was seeking to transform a hateful mass murder to a hateful mass murder for a cause and that ISIS was once again happy for the gift of blood.

It could be asserted that action should be taken against people who might engage in a mass shooting or who might become terrorists. In the case of Mateen, it could be claimed that the F.B.I. should have acted against him even without adequate evidence. This is where the discussion switches from epistemology (what can be known) to morality (what should be done).

The matter of determining the level of warranted suspicion that justifies taking action against a person is a rather important moral concern. On the side of public safety, the stock argument is that by acting on a relative low threshold of warranted suspicion, the public is kept safer. This is a stock utilitarian argument in which the morality of an action is a matter of weighing the harms against the benefits. In the case of Mateen and others, the claim would be that if action had only been taken on the basis of the available evidence, then the murders might have been averted. As a specific example, if expressing hatred of the sort linked to mass shootings resulted in a person being legally banned from owning guns, then there would be less likelihood of a mass shooting occurring. As another example, if the state could detain people on the basis of limited evidence of connections to terrorists, then terrorist attacks would be less likely to occur because more possible terrorists would be locked away (perhaps without trial).

On the side of liberty, the stock argument is that acting on a relatively low threshold would violate rights and create more harm than safety. This is also a utilitarian argument; the difference being in the assessment of harms and benefits. For example, supporters of the Second Amendment such as the NRA would be quick to claim there would be terrible harms and dangers of being able to deny people their gun rights based on the mere expression of hatred or a mere suspicion a person is going to engage in a mass shooting.  In fact, the usual claims are being presented that the shooting could have been prevented or mitigated if only more people had guns.

As another example, those who support the idea of having to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt would oppose such a low threshold of detention for suspicion that a person might engage in a mass shooting. These would tend to be people who respect the idea of the rule of law (though law can be made awful).

It can even be argued that such a low threshold policy would make the public less safe: the violation of rights and low-threshold detentions would create anger and resentment that would lead to more and not less harm. My own position is in opposition to a low threshold—the cost is not worth the gain (if any) of such an approach. In regards to the gun regulation debate that the murders have ignited (once again), I really have nothing new to say about guns—nor, does it seem, does anyone else.


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12 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm

  2. TJB said, on June 13, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    The root of the problem is that the ISIS version of Islam is theologically the most sound.

    For a long time this was not realized, but as more and more people are able to read the original texts for themselves on the internet, it is fairly obvious.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 14, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      It depends on what you mean by “theologically sound.” Since I think this is all made-up, the soundness would be analogous to talking about what is or is not cannon or correct in a Star Wars fan fiction.

      • WTP said, on June 14, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        Any plans at all to address David Hablestein’s comments here, Mike?


      • TJB said, on June 14, 2016 at 4:38 pm

        Theologically sound in this case would mean faithful to the meaning of the text.

        Did you see this article written by an American Muslim in USA today a few weeks ago? He discusses the role of theology in ISIS’s appeal to Muslims.

        As a Muslim growing up in the United States, I was taught by my imams and the community around me that Islam is a religion of peace. My family modeled love for others and love for country, and not just by their words. My father served in the U.S. Navy throughout my childhood, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander. I believed wholeheartedly a slogan often repeated at my mosque after 9/11: “The terrorists who hijacked the planes also hijacked Islam.”

        Yet as I began to investigate the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad’s life for myself in college, I found to my genuine surprise that the pages of Islamic history are filled with violence. How could I reconcile this with what I had always been taught about Islam?

        In February 2015, the U.S. State Department Acting Spokesperson Marie Harf suggested that a “lack of opportunity for jobs” might be a significant factor in radicalization and terrorism. Alternatively, Suraj Lakhani, a scholar of radicalization in Wales, suggested that the process is driven by religious concerns and a drive to bolster one’s personal identity. He implies that young Muslims ought not be allowed to hear ISIL messages or interact with their recruiters.

        Naturally, I agree that interacting with ISIL recruiters is a bad idea, but I believe what the recruiters themselves say sheds the most insight on the radicalization process. ISIL’s primary recruiting technique is not social or financial but theological. With frequent references to the highest sources of authority in Islam, the Quran and hadith (the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad), ISIL enjoins upon Muslims their duty to fight against the enemies of Islam and to emigrate to the Islamic State once it has been established.

        A recent two-page spread in the third issue of ISIL’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, for instance, appealed to prospective recruits to leave their homeland and emigrate to the Islamic State by quoting a hadith from the canonical collections; it urged them to realize that they are living in times that reflect those of the earliest Muslims by referring to Muhammad’s life; it encouraged them to take a step of faith by quoting the Quran; and it praised them for their obedience by quoting yet another hadith. All four references to the Quran, hadith and the related Sunnah, were on the same two-page spread. Such is the frequency and intensity with which ISIL uses Islam’s foundational texts to appeal to potential recruits.

        As a young Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was impossible for me to look up a hadith unless I traveled to an Islamic library, something I would have never thought to do. For all intents and purposes, if I wanted to know about the traditions of Muhammad, I had to ask imams or elders in my tradition of Islam. That is no longer the case today. Just as radical Islamists may spread their message far and wide online, so, too, the Internet has made the traditions of Muhammad readily available for whoever wishes to look them up, even in English. When everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith for themselves, bypassing centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.

        The Quran itself reveals a trajectory of jihad reflected in the almost 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career. As I demonstrate carefully in my book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, starting with peaceful teachings and proclamations of monotheism, Muhammad’s message featured violence with increasing intensity, culminating in surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran, and its most expansively violent teaching. Throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Quran culminates in its ninth chapter.


        • WTP said, on June 14, 2016 at 5:43 pm

          The vast majority of people do not delve into the fundamental tenets of their culture. This is one reason why philosophers, “deep” thinkers, and such are often shown to be fools when they profess to understand The People. And most young people are way too busy with their lives, their entertainment, their social positioning/status, the opposite (or same) sex, etc. to dwell on the sort of fundamentals the “intellectuals” see as prominent. The problem lies when the average young person hits a crisis point in their lives or reaches an age where they are looking for a purpose and there hasn’t been any one or any thing in their lives pointing them in a proper/productive direction. It is at this point that they become very, very vulnerable to those “teachers” who “help” them understand these things that they’ve heard their elders discuss or things that, while they have been somewhat oblivious to, they have understood that “important” people have discussed. It is often religion but it can be politics, economics, philosophy, any number of “grown-up” things. When there is an intersection of vulnerability and a violent ideology, especially one that tells them that they can redeem themselves for past transgressions (especially transgressions of that ideology’s sexual norms) or something that appeals to their most base nature, bad things are very likely to ensue.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 17, 2016 at 4:25 pm

          There is, of course, the classic saying that the devil can quote scripture.

          You do raise an interesting and important point, one that critics of religion in general have raised: the monotheistic texts contain passages that warrant what appear to be morally horrific behavior. This is the stock argument used by certain atheists: religion warrants immorality, thus we should reject religion.

  3. TJB said, on June 13, 2016 at 7:21 pm

  4. TJB said, on June 13, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    Ideas have consequences.

    • WTP said, on June 14, 2016 at 8:50 am

      Would you also say that to a much greater extent, the ideas we teach our youth and who we employ to teach those ideas to them, have even greater significance?

      • TJB said, on June 14, 2016 at 10:23 am

        Yes. We need to be careful what we teach our kids.

        We especially want to make sure what they learn conforms to reality.

        For example, it is important that they understand that socialism has failed every single time it has been tried.

        • WTP said, on June 14, 2016 at 3:32 pm

          And yet the opposite is what is happening and has been happening for decades. And not just kids, but adults fail to understand this as well (see here). How sustainable do you suppose that is?

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