clap clap blog: we have moved

Friday, April 25, 2003
So: Walzer.

Me and Jason watched last night (after the Michael Jackson Private Home Movies special--it was a good night) an interview with Michael Walzer on PBS. Not surprisingly, they focused on his views on terrorism, which I will summarize in a second.

First, though, let me give a brief summary of Walzer himself. He is one of the most important living American political philosophers. He has written Just and Unjust Wars and Spheres of Justice and edits the journal Dissent. I wouldn't go so far as to say I agree with him about most things, but Dissent is a fine (if a bit too Hitchens-y / old-guard Jewish leftist) magazine, and he manages to be a public intellectual in America, a rare enough feat in this day and age that he deserves respect for that alone.

Here, then, is a ridiculously reductionary summary of his argument about terrorism.

- Terrorism is any indiscriminate act of aggression against noncombatants (aka "civilians" or "innocents"). That indiscriminate is imporant, for Walzer, since what he calls the "Revolutionary Code of Honor" that existed pre-WWII allowed for the selective assasination of political leaders, but not innocent bystanders. Thus, "terrorism" encompasses not only suicide bombings, but the fire-bombing of Dresden and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two.

- Although we primarily think of terrorism today as the weapon of the weak and the fanatical, the responsibility for modern terrorism's origins (aka the Revolutonary Code of Honor being violated) lies with the West during WWII, specifically with the American actions above and the German holocaust and bombing of London. Thus, although he never states this explicitly in the interview, it is the responsibility of the rationalist west to end terrorism.

- Terrorism, by dint of its refusal to recognize barriers between combatants and non-combatants, and its indiscriminate choice of targets, makes the group targeted by terrorism worthless in the eyes of the terrorists; if any of them are worthy of being killed, all of them are worthy of being killed, and there is no group for which that is true. Thus, terrorism is an absolute moral wrong and should be universally condemned.

- Since terrorism is universally wrong, it should be universally opposed, and excusing it for any reason is simply to encourage evil. Thus, the police force should be encourage to defend against individual acts of terrorism.

- Terrorism was started by the rationalist western powers, although upon reflection Japan would be in here too with the Rape of Nanking, but whatever. Thus, the way to end modern terrorism as a phenomenon is for it to be universally condemned through rationalism, and for knowledge of the history of terrorism and revolution be spread throughout the world so that all might see it as a moral wrong.

So let's look at this. (Hopefully I haven't misrepresented it.) It starts off good, but then it goes a bit downhill as he gets twisted up in his logic--I tend to agree with the first two points, but less so with the last three. It was interesting to watch the program because you could kind of see this happening as the interviewer started pressing Walzer for solutions, although he pulled it all out after a brief bit of confusion. The bit at the end in particular, though, is a decent example of why I'm embarassed for political theory sometimes--it's just so, you know, blinkered intellectual, "show them the truth and they will be set free" etc., the idea that if people all just know what I know the problem would be solved. That, in other words, political theory can solve all the world's problems. I think that's kind of wishful thinking, but hey, maybe it could work, and it's not necessarily the biggest piece of his argument anyway, so let's move on.

Next we have the unqualified assertion that the best defense against individual acts of terrorism is the police force. Well, here we have a problem, given how the current technique of fighting terrorism with the police force is leading to strong erosion of key liberal democratic values like civil liberties and limiting the power of government. It's interesting to see Walzer slip into the trap that much of America is falling into today (or Britain was falling into twenty years ago, or Japan was falling into ten years ago, or Israel has been in for the last thirty years) of becoming so concerned with terrorism because it has the capacity for utter annihilation of individuals that they lose sight of issues that have far more importance for the polity as a whole or large groups within it. I think Walzer is obviously not there as much as John Ashcroft is, but I still see a tendency in Hitchens and some of the other lefty folks who fancy themselves followers of Orwell to become so reactionary against the (perceived or actual) views of the radical movement that they start to inch uncomfortably close to the neo-conservatives--a faith which is, after all, far more the evil twin of leftism than old-guard conservativism, given their Israel policy, their foreign-policy rhetoric, and their faith in government control. I'm not saying police shouldn't be involved in stopping terrorism; I'm just saying that for that to be Walzer's only answer is a bit weird, given that he even admitted earlier in the interview that, in areas that become involved in terrorism, past foreign policy is often partially to blame, and finding some way to correct these mistakes might be an effective technique. It's like he's so worried about being an apologist for terrorism that he loses sight of the practicalities of the situation and the fact that you need the carrot, not just the stick, to correct most political problems.

Indeed, it is this weird blindness to practicalities that is so confusing about Walzer's position. Early in the interview, while making the case for terrorism being an absolute wrong, he qualifies it by saying that he's sure some moral philosopher could come up with a situation where killing a thousand innocents prevents a million deaths, but he preferred not to think about so horrible a situation, and so terrorism = bad, that's it. But this is a weirdly abolutist moral position for an ostensible political philosopher. It seems to me that, right or wrong, terrorism is a reality of our world, and it's not going to be going away anytime soon, no matter what Michael Walzer has to say about it. It has become another weapon in the arsenal, and I think it's something we're going to have to engage with instead of simply condemning; I think the Israeli response to terrorism has been that of simple condemnation, and we can all see how well that's working.

So let me skirt the issue of the morality of terrorism as something those silly moral philosophers would be concerned about and instead focus on whether or not people will think it is morally wrong and how to get them to think that, as befits a political theorist. Walzer is, I think, quite deliberately including the atomic bomb in his definition of terrorism not just to condemn it but also to bolster his argument by equalting suicide bombing with nuclear bombing. But there are many differences, not least of which is the impetus for use and the consequences thereof. It is easier to absolutely condemn nuclear war because if an individual employs that tool, the reaction to it is very likely to result in his death, and so condemning something that will probably get you killed is logical. With terrorism, sad to say, one could very easily play the odds and assume that placing a bomb in a market will result in a net gain for you and your group, and as horrible as that may be, that is politics--we oppose welfare because it raises our taxes, we support tax hikes for the rich because it makes our public transportation run better. (Trying to be fair to both sides here.) Those are, of course, non-fatal issues, but they are issues for a polity that does not live under a tyrranical regime. So while I see Walzer's point, I have a hard time seeing its application; in a situation where absolute moral wrongs like torture and genocide are being carried out against your people, the fine points of terrorism's morality fall to the wayside in favor of the politics of getting yourself out of danger. The unfortunate reality is that terrorism sometimes works, and in the face of that fact, a lot of things stop mattering. Walzer has not given groups whose members practice terrorism any incentive to condemn that practice aside from saying that it is wrong.

Walzer's says that oppressed peoples should not have to use terrorism because it is an "elite" tool and that mass movements can acheive success just as well, so terrorism is simply what those groups that can't mount enough support to work politically do to get their way. But again, there's a difference between the technocratic elitism of the atomic bomb and the guy-in-the-basement individualism (not elitism, I don't think, although I don't mean to imply that one's good and one's bad by making that distinction) of suicide bombing. Besides which, as mentioned above, there are some situations where traditional political movements simply won't work, and there are other situations where, outside of liberal democracy, a minority is being oppressed by the majority and cannot mount a popular movement because, simply, they are outnumbered. He checks off a convenient list of examples where mass movements succeeded--India, Poland, etc.--but forgets the advantages these people enjoyed that were such a big part of their success.

So, as Jason says, I think Walzer has a lot to respond to here before his theory stops being Bushian "moral clarity" and starts being politics we can use. I think he's constructed a good theory, but simply saying terrorism is evil and believing it no matter what doesn't help us figure out situations where, evil or not, terrorism might seem like a good idea.