Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy argues That Michael Totten's proposal for no-holds-barred warfare against Palestinian terrorism is naively simplistic. He presents two arguments, one moral and one practical. Both are specious.

First the moral case: "the hawks," writes Healy, "never seem to pause to think how they might react if they and their kin were the targets of the kind of policy Totten advocates." If? The terrorists are already targeting them and their kin. The "hawks", on the other hand, are doing nothing of the kind; even the most callous disregard for civilian life, in pursuit of terrorists, is not morally equivalent to the deliberate murder of civilians. And I'm sure even Totten would support exercising maximal caution in protecting civilians--consistent, that is, with destroying the terrrorist organizations that hide among them. It is Healy, not Totten, who seems to have trouble understanding what it's like to be an innocent civilian targeted for murder. In fact, he can't even distinguish the experience from that of being a terrorist targeted as a combatant.

Healy's practical argument is no better: he asserts that harsh measures against terrorist groups with a large population of sympathizers merely turn the sympathizers into active supporters. This statement actually says nothing about the effectiveness of dealing harshly with such terrorist organizations--especially compared with the alternative strategy of appeasing them. But it does imply that this method ultimately involves killing so many people ("a river of blood") that it can't possibly be moral. In other words, it's really just the previous specious moral argument, dressed up as a practical one: aggressively combatting a large, popular terrorist organization is morally no better than slaughtering random members of a large, peaceful population.

Taken together, these arguments amount to a kind of pacifism. In effect, they assert that a population--however weak and vulnerable--that is sufficiently enthusiastic about murdering the innocent civilians of another population must be allowed to do so with impunity, while the latter population, if it abhors such slaughter, must meekly accept its own victimization, however capable it is of defending itself. Absolute pacifism has a certain elegantly simplistic appeal, of course, but it's hardly a vantage point from which to deride Totten's hawkishness as hopelessly unsophisticated.

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