A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2012

By popular demand I am adding a post on Benghazi, specifically the attack launched against American personnel. This will allow a thread for people to present the talking points of their specific parties/ideologies.

My views on the matter:

  • Murdering people is morally wrong.
  • The murderers should be found and punished (most likely via Obama’s favored instrument of justice: the drone launched Hellfire missile).
  • If the administration acted improperly before, during or after the incident, then those responsible should be held accountable and punished appropriate (presumably not with a Hellfire missile).

That is what I have to say about the matter. This is the same view I had of the original 9/11 attack. It is interesting to see the difference between the reactions to these incidents in terms of the political leanings of those reacting.

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Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2012
English: New York, N.Y. (Sept. 14, 2001) – Wha...

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Today is, of course, the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. One impact is that the politicians and their proxies have toned down the political attacks for the day. This is, of course, smart politics-launching mean spirited attacks on this day is hardly a good way to score political points. It is, of course, also the right thing to do. This day gives us a reason to remember that despite our political differences we are still all Americans and we share many core values. In any case, it is clear that we were all American enough for the terrorists-they did not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans (or independents).

It would be a good thing if we remember our shared values and common nationality on days other than national tragedies or their anniversaries. While terrible events like 9/11 remind us that despite the venomous political rhetoric we are not actually enemies this is surely something we should remember on other days. It should not take deaths or remembrances of deaths to get us to be civil to one another. This so something we should do all the days of the year.

In terms of the impact of the war on terror that followed 9/11, we seem to be doing relatively well. In 2010 15 private U.S. citizens died in terrorist attacks. That same year 16 U.S. citizens were killed by falling televisions. Thus, a private citizen is marginally more likely to be killed by a TV set than a terrorist and this could be regarded as something of a win in the war on terror.

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10 Years Later

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2011
Sanjay Gupta

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Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. It is, obviously enough, fitting to look back on that terrible day and reflect upon it and its ramifications.

One matter that is of special importance is the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to be suffering from an unusual high level of health complications. Given that they were exposed to burning materials and various other hazards, this is hardly shocking. What is, however, rather shocking is the fact that it took congress nearly a decade to work out a health care bill for the first responders. What is rather disturbing is that Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, said he would block the bill. He gave two reasons. First, he wanted it to be funded through spending cuts. Second, he claimed that the bill had not gone through the proper committee process. His second reason was also backed by fellow Republican Mike Enzi.

In regards to the first reason, it struck me as rather sad that after Republicans had “wrapped” themselves in 9/11 and spent billions on “homeland security” and two wars, a major Republican would do such a thing. While I do understand the need to be fiscally responsible, suddenly finding this fiscal faith when it comes to the 9/11 responders seems rather morally questionable. Surely those people earned the right by their sacrifices. To support this, one needs merely to turn to the speeches in which the Republicans spoke of 9/11 and the heroism of the first responders.

In regards to the second reason, Coburn actually missed the committee meeting in question (and he was a member of the committee). Hence, his complaint was spurious.  While following due process is important (although it was often bypassed in the name of national security), it seems rather petty and mean of him to have used such a point to try to delay or block the bill.

While the bill eventually passed, there were some significant changes. First, the money allocated to the bill was reduced. Apparently the new found sense of fiscal responsibility arrived to late to prevent the massive spending under Bush but just in time to cut back spending on health care for the first responders (who had been praised as great heroes by the very folks who insisted on cutting the budget). Second, the Victims Compensation Fund was set to close significantly earlier and  various other limitations were set.

Coburn justified his actions  (after acknowledging the heroism of the first responders) by claiming that they prevented the bill from “robbing future generations of opportunity.” On the one hand, Coburn does have a point: spending should be carefully reviewed to ensure that the need is legitimate and that the cost will not be too burdensome. Oddly enough, this rather laudable principle seems to be generally overlooked in other cases. In regards to spending on the war on terror, there seems to have been little concern paid to determining whether the spending would be effective (generally not) and whether or not it would burden future generations (definitely so). The main justification given for funding the war on terror is that doing so saves lives. However, terrorism is rather unlikely cause of death for Americans. Except, of course, for the 9/11 responders who became sick because of their exposure to a devil’s cocktail of toxins. There is a certain irony in a congress that funds x-ray machines for full body scans to “protect” us against the minute chance that someone will try to smuggle a bomb on a flight in his underwear (again) yet balks at medical care for people who are, in fact, in danger from the actions of terrorists. Of course, helping the first responders does not, in general, funnel money to the folks who help fund the re-election of politicians.

A final point of concern is that the bill leaves out coverage of cancer. While we went to war in Iraq without checking the facts, folks in congress claimed that a causal link had not been established between the exposure on 9/11 and the cancers that are appearing in the responders. After all, if these people did not get their cancer from 9/11, then there would be no reason for the taxpayers to foot the bill for their care.

One obvious response is that even if the cancer was not caused by their exposure during the 9/11 events, these people should simply be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, treating sick or dying people who put their lives on the line for others hardly seems to be a waste of money. If arguments are needed for how important this event was and how great these people are, one can merely look at what the Republicans said about them, at least prior to the debate over the bill.

A second reply is that it seems reasonable to believe that being exposed to that devil’s cocktail of toxins that arose from the wreckage could very well cause cancer. There is also the fact that the 9/11 responders seem to suffer from cancer at a higher than expected rate. Of course, given that our understanding of cancer is limited, there are grounds for “cancer skepticism” (which has been fueled by the tobacco and other industries). I suspect that one reason that congress has been reluctant to provide coverage for cancer in this case is that doing so would seem to admit that the various chemicals and toxins the responders were exposed to do cause cancer. This would, obviously enough, present various liability problems and could also be used in backing up stronger regulations regarding pollutants. This sort of result would not, of course, please the corporations who donate so lavishly to re-election funds. Then again, perhaps it is just about saving money by not paying for cancer treatments.

A third reply is that there does seem to be a causal link. Sanjay Gupta has been investigating this and reports what he has learned in “Terror in the Dust.” If such a link has been established, then the 9/11 responders should receive coverage for cancer. After all, this would show that at least some of their cancers were caused by the events of 9/11 and that would seem to warrant the state picking up the  tab. At the very least, the Republicans owe them for years of using them for political purposes (the Democrats too, only to a lesser extent).

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A Matter of Principle

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 14, 2010
9/11 (film)
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The Bush era tax cuts are a matter of grave concern to the Republicans. They have made it clear that they will block all legislation until the tax cuts (from 39% to 36%) for the wealthiest 2% of Americans are secure. Since the Republicans are generally against taxes, it is no surprise that they are claiming that this is a matter of principle.

I do see the appeal of that principle. After all, taxes are (at best) a necessary evil and I, like everyone else, would prefer to pay less taxes rather than more. However, I do have some concerns about the fact that the Republicans’ principled stand means blocking all legislation until they get their way. Naturally, I will not argue that the Republicans seem to be engaged in what some might regard as threatening with a “nuclear option” or indulging in some sort of hostage taking or blackmail. Rather, I will take them at their word: they are acting on principle and this principle seems to be that tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are more important than any other legislation.

To properly assess the principle and its application, the “other legislation” must be considered. One is the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While this measure is supported by the military leadership, most Americans and most service members, Republicans have often taken moral stands against this in specific and against homosexuality in general. While it might be argued that the repeal is the right thing to do, it does seem that being willing to block it is consistent with Republican values.

A second piece of legislation is the Dream Act. This act is aimed at enabling people who came here illegally as minors to be put on a track towards citizenship that involves college education or military service. On the face of it, this act seems to be a clever bit of headhunting: rather than sending people of good character who will complete college or serve in our military to other countries, America gets to keep them. The conditions and requirements of this act seem eminently reasonable and it would seem to be of benefit not just to the people who would fall under the act but also the country.

In general, the Republicans have been fairly tough on immigration (at least when it is a political issue). As such, blocking this act would seem to be consistent with their espoused principles.

A third piece of legislation is a bill to provide medical benefits and compensation for the 9/11 first responders. On the face of it, this would seem to be the sort of bill that the Republicans would proudly support. After all, they have been cashing in on 9/11 politically since 9/11. Republicans have praised the first responders as heroes and one would think that wounded heroes would be worthy of care.

However, Republicans have stepped up to filibuster this bill and intend to block it until the tax cuts for the wealthy are safe. The main arguments being advanced are financial. First, it has been argued that previous funding for folks involved with 9/11 have been misspent. The second argument is a question of funding for this bill.

Both these points are reasonable. Before federal dollars are spent on something, previous relevant financial irregularities need to be addressed and steps should be taken to prevent them from occurring in the future. By this principle, pork spending, the funding of the Iraq war, and so on all need to be properly investigated and steps taken to ensure that past problems (like the missing billions in Iraq) are fixed and proper safeguards are put in place. Naturally, I expect the Republicans to stick to this principle consistently.

It is also sensible to have funding for spending. This, of course, needs to be applied consistently. If it is applied to this bill, it must apply to all bills that involve spending. Of course, this bill could be funded by returning the tax rate on the wealthy Americans to the pre-Bush era rate. But, the Republicans’ principle seems to be that the wealthy are more important than the 9/11 responders. This makes the Republicans’ principle quite clear in this matter.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 7, 2010
September 13, 2001: A New York City firefighte...

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For the past decade, 9/11 has been invoked time and time again by the Republicans whenever they wished to start a war, restrict liberty, expand interrogation techniques or silence critics. As such, you would think that they would have voted in favor of a bill intended to provide treatment and compensation to those harmed by that attack.

However, the bill was defeated with 256 (12 Republicans) votes for it and 159 (155 Republicans) against. That is not a typo: the vote was 256 to 159. The reason it did not pass was because the Democrats had decided to use a procedure that required much more than a simple majority. More on this later.

One reason for the Republican opposition was the view that the $7.4 program would be an “entitlement program.”

While it seems likely that some of the money will be misused (after all, 95% of the money sent to rebuild Iraq is unaccounted for), providing medical support and compensation for those harmed in the 9/11 attack does not seem to be mere entitlement. After all, these people are victims of an enemy attack. If we are willing to dump billions into the war on terror to protect Americans from harm, it seems inconsistent to be unwilling to spend money to protect Americans who were harmed by this attack. Of course, the Republican view seems to often be that we can only protect Americans by going to war, granting lucrative contracts to private contractors, setting up secret prisons and so on. Providing health care or support t0 those who have been directly impacted by terror seems to be out of the question.

However, the Republicans do not bear all the blame for what occurred. As noted above, the Democrats decided to not go with a simple majority vote (which would have resulted in the bill passing). Apparently, the Democrats were worried that the Republicans would tag on amendments that would “embarrass” the Democrats in the upcoming elections. For example, it has been claimed that they intended to amend the bill so that illegal immigrants injured in 9/11 would not be eligible for the benefits provided by the bill.

Of course, this raises a question about blame. The Republicans can claim that the Democrats were responsible because they decided to go with the alternative procedure out of selfishness. If the Democrats had only loved America enough to go with a majority vote, then the bill would have passed. Of course, the Democrats can point out that the Republicans seemed to be intent on using the bill for their own selfish purposes-that is, so they could tag on amendments that would hurt the Democrats.

The end result is that both parties come across as rather bad. After all, both of them are playing political games with the victims of 9/11, which seems to be a rather awful thing to do.

Unfortunately, these people have the system almost completely locked up: come election day we mainly just have a choice between scoundrels.

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Terrorism or Not?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 19, 2010

Andrew Joseph Stack III, apparently partially motivated by a hatred of the IRS, crashed his plane into an Austin building. This incident has been officially classified as a criminal act rather than a terrorist attack. However, some have contended that this is a case of conservative terrorism. While this incident is a terrible one, it does raise the issue of what counts as terrorism.

From a purely cynical standpoint, it could be claimed that the label of terrorism is applied as a matter of politics. Acts are declared terrorists acts so as to gain some sort of political game piece to be played for an advantage. For example, the underwear bomber is a terrorist because this enables the Republicans to claim that a terrorist attack occurred on Obama’s watch. In this current case, neither the Republicans nor Democrats can gain a political point by calling this incident terrorism and so they do not label it as such.

However, there seems to be a matter worth discussing here that is beyond mere political rhetoric.

One plausible view of terrorism is that it is the intentional use of force on to create fear and this is done on the basis of ideological motivations. To distinguish this from standard police and military actions, it can be added that the force is aimed at civilian targets or at the very least disregards the civilian/combatant distinction. Of course, the concept is one that is rather heavily debated and, as such, this can hardly be considered a definitive and non-controversial account. However, it does seem to have intuitive appeal. This definition does seem to nicely capture paradigm cases of terrorism, such as the 9/11 attack.

Using this definition, Stack’s attack would seem to be terrorism. After all, he seems to have been clearly motivated by ideological factors (combined, of course, with various personal issues) and he used violence against civilians. The parallels to 9/11 are quite clear, even down to the use of a plane as the  weapon.

Of course, Stack’s attack has been presented as a criminal act rather than an act of terrorism. This raises the obvious question of what distinguishes Stack’s attack from a terrorist act.

One factor that might be pointed to is that Stack is an American and this makes his act a criminal act rather than a terrorist act. However, this does not seem to be enough to change the nature of the act from being an act to terror to a mere criminal act. After all, there can be internal acts of terror committed between citizens. For example, the bombings in Iraq by Iraqis are considered to be terrorist acts as were the acts of the IRA in Ireland.

Another factor is that Stack seems to have acted as an individual without any supporting group that trained or at least helped guide him towards his act. It is generally accepted that terrorism is a systematic process that requires a group or organization. Obviously there can are criminal organizations that commit violent acts to advance their goals. However, these are usually distinguished from terrorist groups by their motivations. That is, criminal groups often  create fear  to make money while terrorist groups often commit crimes to make money to fund  terrorist attacks so as to advance their ideology. Of course, the line between terrorist groups and criminal groups is often a blurry one-especially in cases involving large scale drug trafficking.

If terrorism is defined in a way that makes it a group thing, then Stack’s attack would not count as a terrorist attack. This view does have some plausibility as shown by a comparison to war.

If I organize and launch an attack against my neighbors and take over their house, then I am a criminal. If my country organizes and launches an attack against another country, then this is war and not (on the face of it) a criminal act. Perhaps terrorism works the same way. To use a metaphor, perhaps terrorism and war are team sports so that an individual cannot play those games by himself.

So, while Stack was motivated by ideological factors and used violence against civilians, the fact that he acted alone would entail that he was a criminal and not a terrorist. If he had, however, some links (however tenuous) to the right sort of group, then he could be classified as a terrorist.

As noted above, there have been some arguments that Stack was a terrorist on this basis. The general case is that he was actually part of a group with a definite ideology and hence this provides him with the necessary context for being a terrorist. The weak point in this argument is that the group that Stack is supposed to be associated with is a rather vague one, namely people who dislike the government and the IRS. Taking such tenuous group membership is taken as an adequate basis to define a person who commits violence as a terrorist seems to make the definition of “terrorist” rather broad. After all, anyone who does not dwell in complete isolation will have some sort of association with some people who have some sort of ideological views. The challenge here is, of course, to work  out what sort of relation a person would need to have to what sort of group to make that person a terrorist rather than a criminal.

It is, of course, tempting to take the view that “terrorist” is primarily a political label that is placed to serve the political ends of the person applying the label. So, for example, a person might be labeled a terrorist so that he can be interrogated with enhanced techniques, assassinated or jailed without due process.  Or someone  might declare a “war on terror” so as to use it as a political tool to reshape laws and how they are applied. A lone person who crashes a plane into a building simply doesn’t provide a useful political game piece and hence is labeled as a criminal rather than a terrorist.

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Trying Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2010
Frederick Dielman (1847-1935) designed this mo...

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The proposal to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York City for trial created considerable controversy. While some of it was manufactured for political purposes, there are significant issues here.

First, there is the practical issue: bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the city for trial will cost millions of dollars. Interestingly, some folks have expressed a willingness to hold the trial in their town so as to bring that money into their community. In any case, holding the trial on a military facility would presumably be cheaper-the security is presumably already in place.

Second, there is the concern that NYC will be targeted again if the trial is held there. Of course, this concern applies to anyplace the trial is located and, of course, NYC is presumably already a prime target for terrorists (that is, after all, where the 9/11 attacks took place). Also, to use some Bush era talk: if we do not hold the trial in NYC because we are afraid, then the terrorist win by turning us into cowards in the face of their threats.

Third, there is the moral and political statement of holding a civilian trial. It shows that we are committed to the rule of law, justice and due process. In contrast, our terrorist foes are outside of the limits of civilization, law and justice. In a very important sense, our battle against the various terrorist groups is a struggle between our values and their values. You do not win a moral battle over values by abandoning those values-anymore than you defend a city by abandoning that city to the enemy.

Fourth, holding a civilian trial casts the terrorist as a criminal and not a combatant. In a sense, a combatant is a fighter in a war and treating him as such would seem to grant him a certain status. Treating him as the criminal he is makes a statement about the nature of terrorism and terrorists: they are not enemy combatantsmurder of the innocent. fighting a war. They are mere criminals engaged in the

Fifth, it has been contended that trying a terrorist rather than just executing them entourages terrorists by showing that we are weak. In reply, the same argument could apply to any criminal and thus would justify getting rid of the notion of holding trials at all. This seems rather absurd, so the argument should be rejected. As another reply, it is the terrorists who are weak. After all, if we can hold such trials, this shows that we are so strong that we can offer justice even to our worst enemies. Executing people without trials and without justice is the way of the terrorist, not the way of the just.

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A Look at Suicide Bombing

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 13, 2009

Suicide bombers dressed as Afghan National Army Soldiers, took part in an attack on a strategic city. In one incident, ten suicide bombers were killed: three by gunfire and seven by their own vests.

While the use of suicide as a tactic seems abhorrent and even insane to most people in the West, the tactic must be carefully assessed and considered. After all, it is a weapon of choice for many of our enemies.

Prior to the latest incarnation of suicide tactics, the best known use of deliberate suicide in military operation was that of the Japanese. Near the end of WWII the Japanese developed a variety of suicide weapons, the best known being the Kamikaze. Whether it was a plane or mini-submarine, the objective was to direct the explosive laden craft into an American ship. As such, this tactic also introduced guided smart munitions. However, the smart part of the weapon was a human being.

Current suicide tactics use a similar technique-a human being guides a weapon to its target. In some cases, the weapon is a vehicle such as a plane (as in the 9/11 attacks) or an automobile. In other cases, the bomb is worn by the individual (typically as a vest). This enables attacks to be launched with precision (although the goal is often to create indiscriminate slaughter). There is also the obvious advantage of having a truly smart weapon system-a human can react to novel situations and respond to changes and obstacles.

Unlike in WWII, the suicide bombers of today also employ a basic form of stealth-they use civilian vehicles or disguise themselves as civilians or friendly forces. This is effective against conventional military forces in four ways. First, it provides the obvious advantage of disguise, thus enabling attackers to sometimes get past defenses and get in close to maximize damage. Second, most Western soldiers are initially reluctant to engage what appear to be civilians. Third, the knowledge that almost anyone or any vehicle could be about to involved in a suicide attack puts stress on the soldiers and thus begins to lower morale and effectiveness. Fourth, it increases the likelihood that soldiers will accidentally kill actual civilians, thus providing material for propaganda and turning the local civilians against soldiers.

Countering this tactic militarily requires building appropriate defenses, training soldiers to recognize the signs of a suicide bomber (behavior patterns, spotting the vest, and so on), having effective human management (such as knowing who is who and who is allowed where), and so on. Of course, this can be very challenging.

Suicide bombing can also be effective looked at it terms of losses and gains. In battle, the objective is to come out ahead in each encounter so that you gain more than the enemy. On a strategic level, the goal is to consistently come out ahead and gain a general advantage. This can be matter of killing more people than you lose to the enemy It can also be a matter of gaining a political advantage. Just like with economics, the goal is to get more with less. Do that better than the enemy, and you win.

Suicide bombing does provide that sort of potential. From a military standpoint, a suicide bomber will tend to be a low cost unit, low value unit. All that is needed is a human being who can wear a bomb, drive a vehicle, fly a plane, or steer a ship. They do not even have to do it that well-just well enough to hit something.  In contrast, a Western soldier is a fairly expensive and high value unit in comparison. Even training a private takes months and a fair sum of money. As such, if a suicide bomber can kill a Western soldier, the suicide bomber’s side has come out ahead: they have traded a low value unit for a higher value unit. Further, suicide attacks can also create morale damage as well. In fact, one of the main purposes of such attacks is just that-to try to get the enemy to give up and go away.

Of course, suicide bombers are very limited: they just go at a target and blow themselves up. They do not patrol, they do not hold ground, they do not do what soldiers do-other than kill and die. As such, for groups like the Taliban to hold areas, they also need more conventional fighters. This can provide a clearer target for Western military forces.

Most of the members of groups like the Taliban are not suicide bombers (the leaders never are, of course). If they were, such groups would tend to die off in short order. Without leaders to guide them and people to provide their bombs, many of these suicide bombers would not be suicide bombers. As such, the main targets should be those who employ the bombers.

That is easily said. However, groups who employ suicide bombers also tend to either be insurgency groups or terrorist groups (or both). These groups generally cannot be dealt with using conventional military means. Dealing with them is usually much more like police work: finding them among civilians and dealing with them.

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