A Philosopher's Blog

Motives for Terror

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2013
MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the evil and senseless bombing in Boston, there was considerable speculation about the motives of the bombers. Not surprisingly, some folks blamed their preferred demons: some on the left leaped to conclusions involving right-wingers while those on the right leaped to conclusions involving Islam.  As it turns out, the alleged murderers have a connection to Islam.

While some hold the view that there is a strong causal connection between being a Muslim and being a terrorist, the connection obviously cannot be that strong. After all, the vast majority of Muslims do not engage in terrorism. As such, beginning and ending the discussion of the motive for terror with Islam is not adequate.

When it comes to terrorist attacks against the United States, the stock explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom. A common variation on that is that they hate democracy. Another explanation is that they simply hate the United States and other countries.

The explanation that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom (or democracy) does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as enemies of freedom and democracy, thus presenting them as having evil motives. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as being attacked because of their virtues. Crudely put, the bad guys are attacking us because they hate what is good.

The explanation that the terrorists simply hate the United States and its allies also does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as simply being haters without any justification for their hate. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as innocent targets. Crudely put, the haters are attacking us because they are haters.

In both of these approaches, the United States and its allies are presented as innocent victims who are being attacked for wicked or irrational reasons. What certainly helps support this narrative is that the terrorists engage in acts that are wicked and certainly seem irrational. After all, the people who are killed and injured are usually just random innocents who simply happen to be in the blast area at the time. Because of this, it is correct to condemn such terrorists as morally wicked on the grounds that they engage in indiscriminate violence. However, the fact that the direct victims of the terrorists are generally innocent victims of wicked deeds does not entail that the terrorists are motivated to attack innocent countries because they hate us, our freedom or our democracy.

One significant source of evidence regarding the motivation of terrorists is the statements terrorists make regarding their own reasons. In the case of the alleged Boston bomber, he claims that he was motivated by the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the case of other terrorists, they have generally claimed they are motivated by the actions of the United States and its allies.

My point here is not to justify the actions of the terrorists. Rather, the point is that the terrorists do not claim to be motivated by the reasons that have been attributed to them. That is, they do not regard themselves as being driven to attack us because they hate our freedom or democracy. They do often claim to hate us, but for rather specific reasons involving our foreign policy. As such, these stock explanations seem to be in error.

It might be countered that the terrorists are lying about their motivations. That is, that they are really driven by a hatred of our freedom or democracy and are just claiming that they are motivated by our foreign policy and associated actions (like invading countries and assassinating people with drones) for some devious reason.

The obvious reply to this is that if terrorists were motivated by a hatred of freedom or democracy, they would presumably attack countries based on their degree of freedom or democracy. Also, a non-stupid terrorist would take into account the ease of attacking a country and what the country could and would do in response. Hitting the United States to strike against freedom or democracy would thus be a poor choice, given our capabilities and how we respond to such attacks (invasions, drone strikes and so on).  To use an analogy, if someone hated athletes, it would not be very sensible to get into a fist fight with a professional mixed martial artist when one could go beat up a marathon runner (who is not also a martial artist).

It might be countered that the United States is the symbol for freedom and democracy, hence the terrorists want to attack the United States even though they know that this will result in retaliation of the sort that many other democratic states cannot or would not engage in.

While this is not impossible, the more plausible explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by their hatred of our foreign policy. After all, invasions, assassinations and such tend to motivate people to engage in violence far more so than some sort of hatred of freedom or democracy.

It might, of course, be wondered why the motivation of terrorists matter. What matters is not why they try to murder people at a marathon but that they try to do such things.

While what they do obviously matters, why they do it also matters. While I obviously believe that terrorism of the sort that took place in Boston is evil, this does not entail that there are no legitimate grievances against the United States and its allies in regards to our foreign policies. To use an analogy, if Bob blows up Sam’s whole family because Sam killed Bob’s son, then Bob has acted wrongly. But this does not prove that Sam acted rightly in killing Bob’s son. In the case of the United States, the fact that we have been attacked by terrorists does not thus make our invasions or drone assassinations right. Now, it might turn out that our actions are right, but we cannot infer that they are just because terrorists do terrible things.

Sorting out what motivates terrorists is also rather useful in trying to prevent terrorism. If we assume they are motivated by their hatred of our freedom or democracy, then we would have to abandon our freedom or democracy to remove their motivation. This is obviously something that should not be done.

However, if some terrorists are motivated by specific aspects of our foreign policy (such as drone strikes that kill civilians), then it seems well worth considering whether we should change these policies. To use an analogy, if someone keeps trying to attack me because I am virtuous, then I obviously should not abandon my virtues just to stop these attacks. But if someone keeps trying to attack me because I keep provoking him, then I should consider whether or not I should be doing those things. It might turn out that I am in the right, but it might turn out that I am in the wrong. If I am in the wrong, then I should change. But if he is in the wrong, then I would be warranted in not changing (but I would need to be honest about why he is attacking me). For example, if he goes after me because I am stealing his newspaper and dumping leaves in his yard, then I should probably stop doing that. As another example, if he is going after me because I run past his house, then he should stop doing that.

The same would seem to apply to terrorists. If we are engaged in unjust actions that provoke people, then we should stop those actions. If, however, we are acting justly and this provokes people, then we should continue to the degree those actions are warranted and necessary. But we should be honest about why they area attacking us.

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Rockets & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 21, 2012
English: A Qassam rocket fired from a civilian...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a repeat of events in 2008 (and earlier) Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel. Israel, not surprisingly, responded with attacks of its own. In addition to the political and humanitarian concerns, this matter raises numerous ethical issues.

One issue of concern is that Hamas generally locates its launch sites close to or in civilian areas. As such, Israel runs the risk of killing civilians when it attempts to destroy the launchers. This raises the general issue of launching attacks from within a civilian population.

On the face of it, this tactic seems to be immoral. To use the obvious analogy, if I am involved in a gun fight and I grab a child to use as a human shield, I am acting wrongly. After all, I am intentionally endangering an innocent to protect myself. If the child is hurt or killed, I clearly bear some of the moral blame. While my opponent should not endanger the child, I would rather limit her options if I kept attacking her while hiding behind the child.  Naturally, if I was shooting at her innocent children while using a child as a shield, I would certainly be acting very wrongly indeed.

One possible counter is that the analogy is flawed. In the child example, the child is coerced into serving as a shield. If the civilians support Hamas and freely allow themselves to be used as human shields, then Hamas would not be acting wrongly. To use an analogy, if I am in a gun fight and people volunteer to take bullets for me by acting as human shields, I would seem to be acting in a way that would be morally acceptable. As such, as long as the civilians are not coerced or kept in ignorance (that is, employed as shields by force or fraud), then it would seem that Hamas could be acting in a morally acceptable way.

There is, of course, a rather obvious concern. To go back to the gunfight analogy, suppose my fellows volunteer to serve as human shields while I shoot randomly at my opponent’s friends and family. If my opponent returns fire and hits one of my shields while trying to stop me, it would seem that my opponent would not be acting wrongly. After all, she is not trying to kill my shields—she is trying to stop me from shooting randomly at her friends and family.

This, of course, leads to another point of moral concern: Hamas fires rockets into populated areas as opposed to aiming at military targets. That is, Hamas seems intent on hurting random Israelis. One main argument in defense of Hamas is that the rockets are being fired in retaliation for Israeli wrong doings. As such, the rockets are intended as retribution for wrongs. In general, punishing people for their misdeeds is morally acceptable and can be argued for in terms of deterrence and retribution. Of course, it must be shown that Israel has done wrong and that the retribution is proportional and justified.

However, the fact that Hamas is shooting rockets that randomly hurt people seems to remove the retribution justification from Hamas’ attack on Israel.  After all, punishment is something that should be directed at the guilty party and not randomly inflicted on whoever happens to be at the receiving end of a rocket. After all, to punish the innocent would simply be to commit a crime against them and would not be an act of justice.

One stock reply is that the people hurt by the rockets are (usually) Israelis and hence they are not innocent.  That is, they are fully accountable for whatever wrongs Israel has allegedly committed. However, being a member of a large group seems to be a rather weak basis for justifying such random retribution. To use an analogy, imagine that professor Sally is fired from her job at Big University so that the president of the university can give her boyfriend Sally’s job. Now suppose that, in revenge, Sally starts randomly slashing the tires of students’ cars and that she defends her actions by pointing out that the students are associated with Big University and hence just targets of her retribution.

On the face of it, Sally’s justification seems absurd: the students are hardly accountable for the doings of the president. Likewise, one might argue, random people are unlikely to be accountable for any alleged misdeeds attributed to Israel.

One obvious counter is that being a citizen comes with moral accountability that would not hold in the case of students. A citizen of a democratic state, it can be argued, is responsible for what is done by her nation. After all, a citizen of a democracy has the right to elect officials and make decisions regarding the actions of the country. So, the rocket attacks could be just retaliation provided that the actions of the Israeli state warranted such retribution.

The obvious reply is that while citizens of a democratic state do bear some responsibility for the actions of their nation, such random attacks fail to take into account important distinctions. To be specific, it seems clear that every citizen does not bear the guilt of every misdeed (or perceived misdeed) of a nation. For example, a random rocket attack could kill an Israeli who opposes violence or it could murder a child. Surely such people do not deserve death, whatever the alleged misdeeds of the country.

Obviously, it could be argued that collective guilt somehow overrides all other normally relevant aspects (such as past actions).  However, the burden of proof seems to be on those who would make this claim.

As such, these random rocket attacks fired from within civilian areas seem to be morally wrong.

Naturally, a similar sort of argument can be applied to any cases in which Israeli attacks kill random people in Gaza. Or random attacks kill anyone anywhere.

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Indefinite Detainment

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2011
American Terrorist

Image via Wikipedia

While the actual threat of terrorism is rather minor (even the worry that terrorists might obtain a nuclear weapon clearly pales beside the fact that nations are already well armed with nuclear weapons) there is still an ongoing obsession with passing laws allegedly aimed at security.

As with many attempts to (allegedly) improve security, one of the more recent approaches has involved a clear infringement on rights and liberties. To be specific, the senate recently blocked an attempt to ban the indefinite imprisonment of Americans suspected of terrorism.

The stock justifications for allowing the military to detain American indefinitely are that terrorists are bad and that to not allow this sort of thing puts us in greater danger.

While it is true that terrorists are bad, rapists and murders are also rather bad. In fact, more Americans are killed by non-terrorists than terrorists and this would seem to thus warrant indefinite detainment of all dangerous criminals. This, as might be imagined, would run contrary to the basic legal rights of Americans. As such, the idea that terrorists are bad does not seem to warrant this difference in treatments.

As far as the security value of indefinite detainment, one obvious point of concern is that in order to detain a person, they must be discovered and arrested (or captured).  As such, the indefinite detainment does not seem to aid in actually capturing people. It merely allows people to be held indefinitely. While this could be justified on the grounds that a person who is detained indefinitely would do no more misdeeds, the same argument could be applied to anyone who poses a threat-which would include many non-terrorist criminals.

It might be argued that a terrorist is not entitled to the rights of a citizen since he is an enemy combatant. In the case of alleged  terrorists who have allegedly elected to serve a foreign power, they could be taken to be traitors. However, the matter becomes a bit muddled when the alleged terrorist is entirely domestic in allegiance and motivations. In such cases, the person could be taken to be a traitor in the sense that he would be allegedly making war on the United States. Of course, what would be needed is a clear distinction between a terrorist and a criminal who merely intends to murder Americans and destroy things. Perhaps this could be sorted out in a clear and principled manner.

Perhaps the most significant point of concern is that an American who is accused of being a terrorist in the United States is just that-an accused terrorist. Until it is legally established that an American is a terrorist, then he is merely a suspect and thus still entitled to the full legal rights of an American citizen. In other words, if an American is taken on American soil and denied his rights because he is alleged to be a terrorist, then his rights have been violated because he has been assumed guilty without trial. If he is to be justly stripped of such rights, then his status as a terrorist must be established.

If an American is captured outside of the United States while acting as an enemy combatant (for example, he is captured during an attack on an American base in Afghanistan), then a reasonable case could be made for treating him as an enemy combatant. However, he would still be an American citizen and must be subject to the American legal system. Naturally, if an American is killed while attacking American forces in an act of war, then that death would (in general) be justified.

A final point of concern is that indefinite detainment will be misused. After all, the most common application of the various “anti-terrorist” laws has been in the area of mundane crime (mainly drug crimes).  One obvious concern is that this approach could be used against people who are protesting against the government or who might be targeted for detention without trial.

It might be objected that I am “naive” and do not see “the danger.” My obvious reply is that this alleged danger does not warrant the violation of our basic legal rights. Each time someone wishes to erode rights they make these same sort of appeals to fear and “security.” While such fears might be sincere, they do not warrant an attack on the very liberties and rights they are allegedly created to defend.

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Afghanistan & My House

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 27, 2011
Map of Afghanistan with flag.

Image via Wikipedia

I was a bit remiss in my blogging today-normally I have a post ready to pop in before 6:00 am. However, I have been engaged in “home improvement.” While doing some indoor work, I happened to catch a bit about Afghanistan and began to see the parallels between home improvement and that war.

Just like Afghanistan, my home improvement project began with a provocation that could not be ignored (‘wow, the 1980s called and want this house back”). Initially, the goals were limited and sensible (repaint some rooms and replace some fixtures). However, they soon expanded (replace the chewed up linoleum, rehang the gutters, clear out the attic and all closets, and so on) and money began being poured into the endeavor at an alarming rate. Like Afghanistan, no end seems to be in sight. While the main painting was completed Saturday, I spent today doing even more tasks. There will be more tomorrow, more the next day and presumably more and more. In fact, owning a home creates an ongoing cycle: as one project is finished, it makes something else look bad and that must be fixed. Then some problem arises that must be fixed. Once those things are dealt with, it is probably time to go back to the original thing that started the cycle and deal with that again.

Fortunately, there have been no fatalities (yet) involving my house.

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The Ethics of DDoS Protests

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on December 16, 2010
Screenshot of error message when attempting to...
Image via Wikipedia

One consequence of WikiLeaks leak is that it has been cut off from its main sources of acquiring money. Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal have all stopped doing business with WikilLeaks. WikiLeak’s bank, PostFinance, has also stopped doing business with the organization.

In response a group of “hackers” known as “Anonymous” have launched Operation Payback. This operation involves launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on the web sites of the companies in question.

Put a bit roughly, DDoS attacks work by overwhelming a site with traffic so that the site is greatly slowed or even forced to shut down. To use a somewhat inaccurate analogy, it is like crowding the entrance to a business so that customers cannot get in. While relatively simple, these attacks are hard to counter because each attempt at access seems like a legitimate site visit.

One factor that makes this DD0S attack stand out is that it is supposed to be a political protest. According to Anonymous, they are “actively campaigning for the free flow of information” and to be “against anyone who supports censorship, such as those who are responsible for the silencing of WikiLeaks.” For its part, a WikiLeaks spokesperson say that “We neither condemn nor applaud these attacks. We believe they’re a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that the campaign is actually an act of protest and not merely an act of mischief using WikiLeaks as an excuse. I will now turn to the ethics of the matter.

When considering any protest, regardless of the means employed, a primary question is whether the protest is morally justified or not. If a protest is not morally justified and it does some harm to those who are targeted by the protest, then the protest would seem to be morally wrong. For example, suppose some students failed their classes because they partied all semester rather than doing work in their classes. In response, suppose they decided to “protest” by breaking the handles to the professors’ offices door and those of the classrooms in which they taught on the first day of classes the next semester.

While the students might be angry over their grades, the professor did not wrong them. As such, they have no grounds for protest and their “protest” merely causes unjustified harm to the professor, the university and also to other students.

Now, suppose that a professor maliciously failed students in a philosophy class because he disagree with their criticism of his philosophical views. In that case, the students would seem to have legitimate grounds for a protest against the professor.

Turning back to the actual situation, that of the alleged abandonment of WikiLeaks, the question is whether the companies in question have acted wrongly and thus morally deserve to be subject to acts of protest.

As noted above, Anonymous seems to be claiming that the protest is justified because these companies support censorship and are taken to have a role in silencing WikiLeaks. It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that those campaigning for the free flow of information remain anonymous (they obviously see the value in not allowing some information to flow freely) and that they protest by cutting people off from information. However, the key concern here is whether these companies have acted wrongly in a way that justifies this protest.

On the face of it, refusing to do business with WikiLeaks does not seem to be an act of censorship. After all, they are not actually censoring WikiLeaks-they are merely refusing to do business with them. It might be argued that cutting off these sources of funding silences WikiLeaks. In reply, while funding does help, web hosting is actually fairly cheap (or even free). WikiLeaks could, for example, start a free WordPress blog or pay around $10 a month for a site. As such, the lack of PayPal and such would be inconvenient but not silencing.

It could be argued that while the financial companies are not literally silencing WikiLeaks, they are acting unfairly by refusing to do business with them. Whether this is true or not depends partially on whether WikiLeaks has actually broken the rules set by these companies in their terms of service. Of course, the terms of service for some of these companies would seem to be fairly “open”: MasterCard and Visa both do business with the KKK. However, if WikiLeaks violated the terms, then the companies would seem to have a legitimate right to terminate their relationship. If, however, the companies are merely cutting off WikiLeaks because of political pressure, then that would be another matter.

Thus, whether there is an injustice to protest here or not seems to be, amazingly enough, a matter of controversy.

A second major factor is the means of protest. As a general principle, the means of the protest should be morally proportional to the offense. After all, if a protest is worse than what it is protesting against, then the ethics of the situations would shift.

In the case of Operation Payback, the protest is to use DDoS attacks to choke web sites, thus denying people access to that information. These attacks do not actually expose financial data. To use an analogy, this “hacking” is not like someone breaking into your bank. Rather, it is somewhat like someone blocking your access to the teller.

One thing that morally distinguishes Operation Payback from other DDoS attacks is that these attacks have typically involved recruiting peoples’ PCs involuntarily via malware (thus creating what is known as a zombie army). The current DDoS attack is supposed to be voluntary-people are apparently downloading and installing software to launch the attacks.  This is morally important since hijacking peoples’ PCs and their bandwidth to protest would hardly be an ethical thing to do. It would be rather like tricking people into protesting or stealing from them to make protest signs. Since the protest is voluntary, this aspect seems to be morally acceptable. As such, the main point of moral concern is whether the attacks themselves are morally acceptable.

On the face of it, the DDoS protest does seem morally comparable to “real world” protests that involve blocking entrances to businesses and other organizations (like the sit ins at schools). While these protests do inconvenience and annoy people trying to gain access, they do not seem to do significant harm. In fact, Anonymous announced that it would not attempt to attack Amazon because doing so would be harmful to consumers and inconsistent with their desire to protest rather than inflict ham.  As such, this sort of DDoS protest does seem to have the potential to be morally acceptable.

Of course, arguments against sit-in/blocking style protests would apply to the DDoS protests. As I see it, the assessment would involve weighing the weight of the misdeed(s) that sparked the protest against the harms being done to those protested against and those impacted by the protest. Do, if the DDoS attacks are proportional to the alleged misdeeds of the companies, then the protests would be acceptable. If not, then they would be unacceptable.

Since the ethics of WikiLeaks is still a matter of debate, I do not have a definite answer at this point.

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Is Assange a Terrorist?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 8, 2010
Picture of Julian Assange during a talk at 26C3
Image via Wikipedia

I’m in finals week, so I’m writing my blog posts in advance. So, I’m focusing on what is news as I write this. Hopefully I won’t be hopelessly out of date.

Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, has been accused of being (or being like) a terrorist. He has also been called a traitor who has committed treason. I’d address the traitor charge then move to the terrorist accusation.

While Assange might be guilty of wrongdoing, he cannot be a traitor to America nor can he have committed treason. After all, he is not an American citizen and thus cannot be a traitor or treasonous relative to America.

As far as being a terrorist, this is somewhat trickier. The term “terrorist” is often used rather loosely and under some of these uses Assange could be classified as a terrorist. However, meanings are like rubber bands: they can be stretched, but if they are stretched too far they become useless.

The obvious starting point is to use the stock dictionary definition. While specific books vary, the general idea is that a terrorist aims at creating terror as a means of coercion. It is generally assumed that the terrorist is attempting to achieve a political end via terror.

By this account, Assange is not a terrorist. After all, he does not seem to be using terror as a means of coercing people to achieve political ends. While he does have political ends, this does not make him a terrorist. After all, all politicians have political ends and this does not make them terrorists. Perhaps switching to the the government’s definition of “terrorism” will help clarify things.

Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) offers the following definition of “terrorism”:

the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents

While Assange did engage in premeditated, politically motivated acts, his acts are not violent. After all, he leaked information rather than attacking anyone. He set off no bombs, fired no guns, and crashed no airplanes. As such, he would not seem to be a terrorist.

It might be countered that  he aided terrorist groups by providing them with useful information and this makes him a terrorist.

Even if his leak aided terrorists, this does not make him a terrorist. Intentionally providing useful information to the enemy already is already referred to by a perfectly good word: “espionage.” Of course, Assange is not a spy in the traditional sense. Rather, he is more akin to a journalist who provides the information to everyone rather than a specific nation or master.

It might be countered that his leak will lead to harm, thus he is a terrorist.

Obviously, this has no plausibility. While terrorists do harm people, harming people does not make a person a terrorist. After all, shoplifters, drunk drivers, combat troops, boxers and police harm other people. But this does not mean that they are terrorists.

A big part of what makes terrorists terrorists is their methodology. That is, they attempt to coerce via the use of violent acts calculated to create terror with the goal of achieving political ends. Assange leaks information but does not seem to have any intention of creating terror. As such, he is not a terrorist.

Of course, this could be countered by the following sort of reasoning:

“Information warfare is warfare, and Julian Assange is engaged in warfare. Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism, and Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism,” said Newt Gingrich. “He should be treated as an enemy combatant.”

Newt is, of course, right. Information warfare is, by the very terms, warfare. This is comparable to saying that fast running is running. Why, yes, it is. Likewise, information terrorism would be terrorism.

Of course, there is the obvious question of what is meant by “information terrorism.” Sticking with the stock meaning of “terrorism”, this would seem to involve using information calculated to create terror as a means to advance political ends via coercion. Crudely put, this would involve scaring people with information rather than violence in the hopes of advancing political goals.

Assange does not seem to be doing that. He doesn’t seem to be trying to scare people and thus coerce them in a way that advances his political goals. After all, he just released the information without making any demands and without any attempt at coercion via fear.

It might be claimed that “information terrorism” is just trying to cause harm with information. This changes the meaning of “terrorism” and broadens it considerably by removing the component of the definition that involves the methodology. So, for example, if someone leaked information about a politician to harm his career, then that would be information terrorism. This seems rather broad because it leaves out a key aspect of what makes terrorism terrorism. After all, “terror” is not part of “terrorism” just for the hell of it.

As such, Newt seems to just be engaged in some rhetoric: he wants to say Assange is a bad man, so he calls him a terrorist.

Newt does, however, have a reasonable point about information warfare. Intelligence has always been a critical part of warfare and information can function as a weapon. Given what Assange has said in various interviews, he seems to regard himself as being a foe of certain governments. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Assange is in conflict with these states. Perhaps this could be called an act of war, or perhaps it could better be regarded as a criminal act. Or an act of espionage.  However, all of these are different from terrorism.

Now, if people want to make the words mean whatever they want whenever they want, then they need to be clear about that. Language is a game, but like all games the players need to know when the rules are being changed.

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A Threat or Not?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2010
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld answers a...
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Feisal Rauf recently appeared on Larry King Live to discuss the matter of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” In the course of the interview he noted that “if you don’t do this right, anger will explode in the Muslim world.” Some folks are taking this as a threat of violence. Not surprisingly, this is the view being pushed by the fine folks at Fox. However, it is reasonable to ask whether or not this is a threat.

Since some folks use fear as a tool it is tempting to question their sincerity in taking his remarks as threats. However, whether people see something as a threat or not can be a rather subjective matter. As such, let it be assumed that these claims are sincere: the folks who see it is a threat actually believe they are being threatened. Of course, feeling threatened and actually being threatened are too different things. This is similar to situations involving offense-a person might regard himself as offended when no offense was intended and it would be unreasonable to be offended.

To determine whether Rauf was making a threat or not involves considering what he actually said and what it reasonably implied. This is rather similar to analyzing an explanation that some people take as a justification. An explanation merely provides an account of how and why something occurred. A justification, in contrast, actually involves contending that it was good or at least acceptable. For example, someone might explain why 9/11 occurred in terms of factors such as religion, history, and politics without defending the attack. This might be seen by the uncritical as an attempt at  justification, but it would not, in fact, be such a thing.

Returning to the main topic of whether his remark was a threat or not, the most reasonable interpretation is that he was issuing a warning rather than a threat. Of course, it is easy to confuse the two since both share a common form. To be specific, a threat and a warning both involve saying that if X occurs, then something bad will happen because of X. However, the difference lies in the intent. When someone is warned, the intent is a positive one-to help the person avoid a harm. A warning implies a degree of concern for those warned and the main intent is not to prevent X but to prevent the harm. After all, if I were to warn you not to touch a wire because you would get zapped, but you informed me you had turned off the power, then I would have no worry about you touching the wire.

When a threat is made, the intent is a negative one-to use fear to persuade others not to take the action. The main goal is not to prevent the harm but to deter others from doing X. As such, the person making the threat is not concerned with the well being of those being threatened but with getting them to do (or not do) what he wants on the basis of the threat.

In the case of Rauf’s remark, it does not seem to be a threat. Rather, he seems to be presenting a warning that if the community center is stopped, then this will have a negative impact on American relations and interests. As such, he seems to be motivated by a desire that America and Americans avoid a potential harm. It does not appear that he is presenting a potential harm in order to coerce people into doing what he wants.

It might be argued that Rauf is cleverly masking his threat behind the mask of warning and that he secretly wishes America ill. However, an appeal to secret motivations is hardly an effective basis for proof.

Giving what Rauf has actually said, he seems to be presenting a warning that is aimed at protecting America from potential harm rather than making a threat to get what he wants.

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Do We Need a War on Terror?

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2010
September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...
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While there is considerable discussion about how the war on terror should be run, there is relativity little talk about whether there should be such a war.

I suspect that some readers think I will be presenting only two options: either fight terrorism or simply give up. This view would be based on the assumption that either we are waging war against terrorists or we are doing nothing. However, this is a false dilemma. There are considerable gradations between having a war on terror and doing nothing.

Obviously, I do not advocate doing nothing about terrorism. However, I do believe that the war on terror is fundamentally misguided and actually creates more harm than good. As such, I am actually arguing that we should do a better job countering terrorism.

One obvious problem with the war on terror (which is shared with most of the other wars on whatever) is that the war and opponent are not clearly defined. Rather, the notion of war and the notion of terror are rather vague. While the idea that we are in a war against terror is brought out to justify a wide range of actions, this war, its goals and its methods seem to shift with the political winds. As such, it is hardly any wonder that this war on terror has made about as much progress as the other wars on whatever.

What is needed is a clear and precise set of goals, objectives and methods. That is, we need to know what exactly we are trying to do and how we are supposed to accomplish it. As such, the war on terror should be replaced with discrete and precise objectives.

Another problem with the war on terror is that the notion that it is a war can be misused to create a sense of urgency and importance. This allows, for example, people to silence criticism by evoking the notion that we are at war. The problem with this is that the criticisms can often be legitimate. When such criticism is silenced, then corruption and the misuse of power become far more likely. This has been the case in the war on terror.

As such, we need to take a critical look at this war on terror and the critics must not be silenced with cries of “national security” or “we are at war.”

A related problem is that the war on terror has resulted in a vast expansion in intelligence services and operations. For example, almost a million people now have top secret clearance. At first glance, this might seem like a good thing. After all, the more agencies and people who are out gathering dots to be connected the more likely it is that terrorists will be caught.

However, some reflection and investigation reveals some serious problems. One of these is that such a vast number of agencies, contractors and operators actually creates a morass that makes it harder to rapidly and effectively process and act upon intelligence. Second, this system is consuming significant amounts of resources that could be better employed elsewhere. Of course, this situation is a gravy train for the security contractors and it could be argued that this should be looked at as a government jobs program (socialized security, perhaps).

Interestingly enough, trimming down, streamlining and re-organizing the intelligence system would result in a more effective gathering and processing of information. The practical challenge is, of course, to create a system large enough to handle the challenges yet small enough to remain effective.  Naturally, when people try to argue for this view, the usual response is that “we are at war” and hence presumably need a bloated and wasteful system.

Another related  problem is the fact that this war on terror has been used as a means to siphon vast sums of money to various contractors and others. The war on terror has certainly proven profitable for some, including some members of congress. Of course, spending money and getting a good return would be fine. However, the money dumped into the war on terror seems to have yielded very little in terms of enhancing national security. For example, consider the money spent trying to detect radioactive material. As another example, consider the vast sums spent on private security contractors that has created an ineffective system.

Even worse, a significant amount of money has actually “vanished.” For example, the Pentagon cannot account for $8.7 billion in Iraqi funds.

This is, of course, the sort of thing that Eisenhower warned us about. What is needed is perhaps the impossible: proper auditing of spending, investigations into war profiteering (including members of the government), and changing the focus from fattening bank accounts to developing effective means of countering threats.

While we do need to be on guard against threats from terrorists, we do not need this war on terror.

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Leaking Blood?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks
Image via Wikipedia

One rather important moral concern about WikiLeak’s leak of information about the war in Afghanistan is whether this leak will result in people being killed. The main concern is that the Taliban has made it clear that it will be going through all the documents looking for the names of those who have helped Americans. They intend, of course, to kill those people.

The most obvious and probably the most plausible view regarding the ethics of the situation is that it would be morally wrong for WikiLeaks to leak documents containing such names. This can be argued for on the grounds that the actions of the folks at WikiLeaks would play a role in the death of other people and playing a role in the deaths of other seems to be clearly wrong. It can also be argued for on the grounds that the folks at WikiLeaks made it clear that they regard themselves as obligated to not cause such deaths. As such, a fatal leak of this sort would  violate their own apparent moral standards.

Of course, there are cases in which leaking information that causes deaths is seen as not being bad. For example, the United States is rather busy trying to get information about terrorists, the Taliban and other enemies in order to kill them. Obviously, folks in the government and the military would be fine with such leaks.

Naturally, the folks in the Taliban regard the leaks that help them in the same way. This then pushes the moral debate back a bit, from the ethics of leaking to the moral status of those who use such leaks to their advantage.

As I see it, the United States has a clear moral edge over the Taliban. This is not so say that the United States is morally pure. Far from it. However, a comparison between the United States and the Taliban will show that the Taliban is considerably more evil. To use but one area of concern, one has but to consider how the Taliban treats women to get a clear picture of the evil committed by the Taliban.  In contrast, the United States advocates the view that women are people and should be treated accordingly.

It must be noted that from the perspective of the Taliban, they are in the right (and on God’s side) and the United States is in the wrong. As such, the folks in the Taliban no doubt would regard any leaking of such names to be a good action. They, no doubt, would also regard the murder of those they regard as collaborators as just actions. In this they would be mistaken.

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Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

Some secrets should (morally) be kept. Others should be exposed. The question for any specific secret is, of course, is whether it belongs in the first or second category.

Naturally, I am thinking about the WikiLeaks leak of the information about the war in Afghanistan. However, this can also be generalized to all such leaks.

Some government secrets do seem to fall into the first category. For example, leaking the names of undercover agents would seem to be wrong. Other government secrets fall into the second category, such as misdeeds being carried out by politicians or crimes being committed by officials.

Naturally enough, the folks in government tend to insist that all their secrets fall into the first category. They invoke national security and so on to keep things in the shadows. As involved parties, they can hardly be expected to consistently reveal what is really going on. As such, there does seem to be a real and legitimate need of leakers (and gadflies, as Socrates would argue).

As far as justifying leaks, the following reasons can be given.

First, in a democracy the citizens seem to have a right and need to know what is being done. Otherwise, they cannot make informed choices when voting. Also, they have the moral responsibility to be aware of what is being done in their name. If the people in government are unwilling to provide this information, then leaking would be justified.

Second, people in power have a natural tendency to seek to conceal what they are really doing and a desire to avoid criticism. This was true in Socrates time and is true today. Since these people are generally not inclined to reveal the truth, then leakers have to ensure that the people know what is going on in the shadows of their government.

Of course, there is a serious concern here: what should be leaked and what should be kept secret? In short, what do the people have a right to know and what is right to conceal?

In this case, I would go with Thoreau-the individual must examine his conscience and the information and make a moral judgment as to what to do. What she decides might be the right thing or the wrong thing, but that is true of any moral decision. To say that people should always rely on the judgment of those who are keeping the secrets is as mistaken as saying that all secrets should always be leaked.

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