A Philosopher's Blog

Pakistan & China

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 16, 2011
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...

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While the killing of Bin Laden was considered a great success, one of out stealth helicopters was left behind. While it was blown up, some parts remained. There is currently some reason to think that our fine friends in Pakistan showed the parts to the Chinese.

While this has not been confirmed, it is certainly consistent with Pakistan’s track record. Assuming it is true, there seem to be various points that can be drawn from it.

First, if this is true, then we have one more reason to believe the obvious: we are (at best) a friend of convenience for Pakistan. They are happy to accept our money and support, while also dealing with our enemies and acting in ways clearing inconsistent with our interests.

Second, if this is true, then we have one more sign that our influence in Pakistan (and perhaps the world) is not as great as we might hope.

Third, if this is true, then it is another (admittedly small) sign of China’s growing influence in the world. Pakistan has recently claimed that China is its “best friend”, which does not bode well for us. Or perhaps it does-given what a great “friend” Pakistan has been for us, perhaps it would be a good thing for us if Pakistan became China’s “friend.”


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Pakistan & The Taliban

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 14, 2011
Flag of the Pakistan Army

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Pakistan has long played a dangerous game with terrorists. On the one hand, they have supported terrorist groups, mainly in the hopes of using them against India. On the other hand, they have also been attacked by some of these groups and have taken action against them.

Recently the Pakistani Taliban (not to be confused with the Afghan Taliban) claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on a military training center. They claim that these were retaliation attacks for the death of Bin Laden. They also claimed that they will launch more attacks on the US and Pakistan because the US killed Bin Laden and they claim that the Pakistani military told the United States were to find him.

If these attacks were motivated by revenge, they would be rather ironic. After all, influential Pakistanis clearly had to be involved in protecting Bin Laden. He lived among active and retired military personnel near the Pakistani version of West Point, thus suggesting a somewhat cozy relationship between Bin Laden and certain elements in the Pakistani military. Currently, it seems that Bin Laden’s location was not provided by the Pakistani military and, in fact, the United States was prepared to engage these forces if they had tried to intercept the raiding party. Naturally, it can be claimed that all the hostility between the United States and Pakistan on this matter is just a cover for Pakistan, but that seems unlikely. As such, when the Taliban attacks Pakistan in retaliation for Bin Laden’s death, they would seem to be attacking his defender. Of course, terrorists are not known for their rationality.

There is evidence that these attacks are not actually related to Bin Laden’s death, however. It has also been claimed that the attacks were made by a splinter group that has been fighting with the Army.  However, the fact remains that terrorists are active in Pakistan in part due to Pakistan’s own decisions to make use of terrorists.

Pakistan should be learning the lesson that we learned: do not expect gratitude from terrorists, even when you fund them. We, however, had somewhat better sense and never allowed our terrorists to set up significant bases of operation in our country.

Pakistan should also be learning that terrorists have a tendency to regard an ever expanding circle as their enemies and they obviously have little or no moral limitations. They are, after all, terrorists.

Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a strategic location, it is a matter of considerable worry as to whether or not the state will be able to sustain itself against the seeds of destruction that the state itself helped plant.

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Pictures of the Dead

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2011
Princess Diana on a royal visit for the offici...

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In addition to the fact that the both died violent deaths, Bin Laden and Princess Diana both share the fact that their post death pictures have generated controversy. In the case of Bin Laden, the decision was made to not release the photos of his corpse. In the case of Princess Diana, the infamous paparazzi photo of her death is featured in the upcoming film Unlawful Killing.

As far as the legality of the matter, this is easy enough to settle. Obama certainly has the legal right to not release the photos of Bin Laden. Legal steps can be taken to have the photos released, of course. In the case of the photo of Princess Diana, it is perfectly legal for it to be shown, at least in the United States and France. The UK is less enamored of the freedom of the press and the film will, as of this writing, not be shown there. What is more interesting than the legality is the matter of ethics.

The main argument given against the release of the Bin Laden photo is that it would incite people to violence. From a moral standpoint, this can be seen as a utilitarian argument (or simply as a pragmatic argument): releasing the photo would have harmful consequences, therefore it should not be done.

Given the power of images, this does have a certain appeal. An image of the dead Bin Laden would certainly have more emotional impact than the mere statement that he is dead. However, it also seems reasonable to consider the obvious: if killing Bin Laden would not inspire a person to violence, then seeing a photo most likely would not push the person over the edge. As such, this argument is not particularly strong. Perhaps a better reason can be found by considering the death photo of Princess Diana.

One argument that can be used in the case of Princess Diana is that such a photo should not be shown out of respect for her and her family. On the face of it, it seems reasonable to hold that a graphic death photo should not be shown unless there is a compelling reason to show the photo. As such, the burden of proof would be on those who contend such a photo should be shown.

In some cases compelling reasons can be given. For example, the photo of Princess Diana was shown (with her face blurred) during the investigation of the crash that killed her. This sort of use seems to be legitimate. Another example would be when showing the picture serves a laudable purpose, such as revealing the true horror of war or crime. However, to show such an image merely to amuse, shock, or make money would seem to be morally unjustified. This is not to say that such a showing should be prohibited by law. Rather, it is to say that it should not be done. If this line of reasoning is solid, then the film should not include the picture-unless it can be shown that there is compelling reason to include the image.

Turning back to Bin Laden, it is rather tempting to hold the view that he is not worthy of such respect. After all, he planned the deaths of thousands and showed no concern over the harm he did to them or their families. As such, there would be no compelling reason to not show his image so as to protect his dignity. In fact, it could be argued that if showing the photo would somehow harm him or those who care about him, then this would be a reason to show them.

That said, I do believe that an appeal to dignity can be made against showing the picture of Bin Laden and the picture of Princess Diana.

In the case of Bin Laden, showing the graphic photo would not be an unjust affront to his dignity. However, it would be an undignified act on our part. While it is tempting to take a trophy from a fallen foe and parade it about in bloody splendor, we should be better than that and it should be beneath our dignity as a people.  Just as we pride ourselves on not wantonly slaughtering innocents, we should also pride ourselves on not showing graphic images of  Bin Laden. In short, if we claim we are better than our enemies, we need to actually act better than they do and this includes not treating the dead as trophies.

In the case of Princess Diana, showing the graphic photo of her would seem to be a clear demonstration of the lack of dignity of those who elected to show the photo (presumably to attract attention to the film). As such, this is something that they should not do-after all, they should be better people. Naturally, if it can be shown that the image is being used in a way that is compelling (because it is critical to the aesthetic value of the film, for example) then it could be used in a way consistent with dignity.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 7, 2011
The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...

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The fact that Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan has been taken to indicate that either Pakistan’s intelligence service is incompetent or that Pakistan has been complicit in hiding him from the United States.

I must admit that it is logically possible that they did not know that Obama was living in a mansion among retired military officers and near their top military academy. However, that seems to be incredibly unlikely and it seems most reasonable to believe that they did, in fact, know he was there.

Of course, there is the possibility that those who knew he was there took pains to conceal this from certain Pakistani officials and hence these officials were ably to honestly tell the US that they had no idea where Bin Laden was actually located. However, even this scenario indicates that the Pakistanis were keeping critical information from the US. However, given that the US was able to carry out the raid effectively in Pakistan and leave safely indicates that there was cooperation from the Pakistanis.

At this point, some conspiracy theorists might claim that US officials were aware of Bin Laden’s location and elected not to act on this information. The least radical of these theories would be that Bin Laden was left alone so as to avoid straining relations with Pakistan. Perhaps he was finally killed because he had lost his value to Pakistan. However, the most plausible explanation is that the US did not know exactly where Bin Laden was located, most likely because influential people in Pakistan were protecting him.

Pakistan has, of course, been an active supporter of terrorist groups. This is because certain elements have regarded these groups as useful, primarily in their competition with the main rival, India. Pakistan has also assisted the United States and has fought against terrorists groups. All this suggests the obvious: Pakistan is divided in this matter. On one hand, they find these groups useful and hence support them. On the other hand, the United States is willing to hand them billions and these groups sometimes decide to bite the hand that conceals them. As such, they will work with the United States, at least some of the time.

On its side, the United States is divided between supporting a country that is only our “friend” because of our money and their desire to keep us from working more closely with India and losing our limited influence in that region.

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Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2011
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I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.

One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located.  It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.

However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.

If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate.  Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.

It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.

I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies,  if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:

Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”

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Is the Media Over Sarah Palin?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 5, 2011
Sarah Palin in Savannah, Georgia, Dec 1, 2008 ...

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Newsweek recently published “Is Sarah Palin Over?”  As Newsweek notes, coverage of Palin blogs and social media has dropped. From February to April there were a mere 235,032 blog posts about her and only 135,421 references to her in the social media. As Newsweek sees it, the value of that coverage dropped from $63 million to a mere $33 million. While this is a drop, it is obviously worth pointing out that this is still a great deal of coverage. It is also worth pointing out that a celebrity tends to experiencing both waxing and waning in their coverage. As such, to claim that Palin is over at this point would seem to be somewhat premature.

Rather than asking “is Sarah Palin over?”,  I think the more appropriate question is “is the media over Sarah Palin?” The answer seems to be that they are not-at least in the case of Newsweek. If the folks at Newsweek were over Sarah, perhaps because she were (in fact) over, then they would hardly devote an article to this subject. The best way to show that someone is over, one might imagine, is to simply stop covering that person. The absence of coverage says “s/he is over” far better than writing an article about it.

While Newsweek seems to have been rather Sarah focused, the folks there are not alone. The media, in general, has been rather obsessed with Sarah Palin and transformed her from a minor political blip to a major player (at least in their coverage). Given how important she has been to these media folks, it is hardly surprising that they would want to keep her going. As such, she will only truly be over when they are over her.

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Targeted Killing

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 4, 2011
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

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The big news this week is that US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, this killing raises various matters that are philosophically interesting.

One obvious issue is whether or not a targeted killing of this sort is morally acceptable. The easy and obvious answer is that since Bin Laden was a very bad man, it was morally correct to put a bullet into his eye. While this is true, it is worth considering the matter in more general terms. After all, what feels justified in a specific case might not stand up to calm assessment when considered as a general principle.

On the face of it, the general principle that it is morally acceptable to target and kill bad people seems to be morally and practically problematic This sort of principle would seem to take us back to the state of nature (to be philosophical about it) or to the mythical Wild West (to be dramatic about it) and does not seem to be one that should be adopted within the context of civilization. After all, one key distinction between civilization and the state of nature is that civilization has a system of law rather than mere vigilantism.

One obvious reply is that Bin Laden was operating outside of civilization and had, in Lockean terms, placed himself into a state of war with the United States and other countries. On this view, Bin Laden can be regarded as an enemy combatant (and hence a legitimate target under the ethics of war).

The enemy combatant approach does have considerable appeal. After all, Bin Laden certainly seemed to regard himself as engaged in a war with the United States and the United States certainly seemed to accept this state of war as well. If killing in war is morally acceptable, then it would seem to follow that the killing of Bin Laden was morally acceptable. Killing him would be on par with killing any other soldier on the field of battle.

It might, however, be contended that Bin Laden was not killed while on the field of battle. Rather, his home was invaded and he was shot to death within its walls. If this is morally justified as an act of war, then presumably it would be morally acceptable for  Qaddafi to order hit squads to kill NATO soldiers and leaders in their homes in America, France, the UK, and so on. However, the general principle that it is acceptable to send hit teams to kill soldiers at home seems to morally questionable, at least. After all, it would seem to erase the distinction between the soldier acting in the role of a soldier in war (which would make him/her a legitimate target) and the soldier as a person living his/her life outside of the domain of war.

In reply, it might be argued that the sort of war being waged by and against Bin Laden admits of no such distinction. Combatants are always combatants, even when at home, and hence legitimate targets. The idea that everyone is a legitimate target is, of course, a common tenet of the terrorist and there seems to be a certain justice in applying their own principle to them. Of course, the terrorists are supposed to be evil largely because they do not make such distinctions and hence accepting this principle as justifying the killing of Bin Laden comes with a moral risk.

This risk can be offset by arguing that there is no need to accept the terrorist’s lack of distinction. Rather, it can be argued that the terrorist’s failure to accept the distinction means that they themselves are in a constant state of being combatants. As such, they are always legitimate targets because they are always on the field of battle. Combatants that do make such distinctions (and follow them) are entitled to also be treated with such distinctions and, as such, targeted killings of such soldiers at home would be murder rather than acts of war. As such, killing Bin Laden at home would be justified.

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Bin Laden

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 2, 2011
A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

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Almost a decade after 9/11, Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals.  While conspiracy theorists are already hard at work, it seems reasonable to believe that Bin Laden is dead and buried at sea.

There was considerable celebration in America and the general consensus seems to be that justice has been done. While this can be debated, Bin Laden certainly had earned a violent death.

One matter of considerable concern is what impact this death will have on the world.  On one hand, this event might be assessed as far less significant than it appears. After all, Al Qaeda’s significance had been steadily declining and it seemed to have been reduced to largely ineffective attacks (such as the underwear bomber). As such, Bin Laden’s death might actually have little impact since Al Qaeda was already in severe decline. In fact, it might be suspected that his declining significance led to his death-perhaps he was no longer worthy of Pakistan’s effort to protect him (assuming they had been protecting him).

On the other hand, the event can be regarded as very significant. First, it does seem important that the United States finally got him, even though it seems almost absurd that it took us a decade and vast expenditures of money to get him. As long as Bin Laden remained on the loose he showed that America could be attacked and that he could avoid our retaliation. This also helped create a myth of invulnerability about him-that God was watching out for him. His death certainly lays that myth to rest.

Second, there is the fact that his death can help bring some closure to 9/11. Of course, no matter how many people we kill, the dead will never return to life.

Third, his death should help Obama politically. While people have, oddly enough, been thanking Bush, the credit would seem to belong to Obama. America’s greatest perceived enemy was taken down at Obama’s order, which should help boost his approval ratings, at least for a while. It should also help reduce, if only slightly, the perception among some that Obama is a secret Muslim, weak, and unwilling to be tough on terror. Whether this will help Obama with the 2012 election or not remains to be seen-but it certainly will not hurt his chances.

Fourth, there is the obvious concern that Al Qaeda and others friendly to what is left of that organization will seek revenge. Of course, they have presumably been trying to kill us all along, so this impact might not be as great as it appears. Bin Laden had been rather effective at alienating many Muslims by being willing to kill other Muslims, so the number of people seeking vengeance for his death might not be as large as some might suspect.

Fifth, the fact that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan living in a mansion seems to indicate that he either enjoyed a generally positive relationship with influential people in Pakistan or that Pakistani intelligence is hopelessly inept (or perhaps just very unlucky). Of course, Pakistan is at best a dubious ally and has routinely worked with terrorist groups in the hopes of using them to counter India.

Sixth, his death will most likely serve to weaken or even destroy Al Qaeda (at least what is left of it). While it will no doubt inspire some people to seek vengeance, it will probably have a greater impact against terrorism. It is my hope that future historians will mark his death as the beginning of a major decline in terrorism. However, to hope and to receive are two very different things.

As a final point, I do wonder what sort of reception he received in the afterlife (if any).

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