Enough Already With The Journalists - What Do The Finest Political Philosophers Think About Terrorism?
February 9, 2002 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Enough Already With The Journalists - What Do The Finest Political Philosophers Think About Terrorism? There aren't many of them. On the liberal side of things, apart from John Rawls, Michael Walzer [here's a fascinating interview with him]is probably the most original and intelligent pluralist alive. In the above-linked article in Dissent he sets out the questions that we should be asking ourselves right now about terrorism. Something tells me we should be paying attention. But what would our answers be? Or are we too caught up with the banality of columnists and pundits to actually face up to the thoughts of a real political thinker?
posted by MiguelCardoso (27 comments total)
For the main link, please click on Michael Walzer's Five Questions About terrorism. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:44 AM on February 9, 2002

Leonard Peikoff weighed in long time ago.
posted by dagny at 5:27 AM on February 9, 2002

This is the link.

Not a bad article, although I'd suggest that he is well off base in question 3. The arguments that he makes are so simplistic and unbalanced that they are close to pointless.
posted by RobertLoch at 5:32 AM on February 9, 2002

" ... And, finally, there is war terrorism: the effort to kill civilians in such large numbers that their government is forced to surrender. Hiroshima seems to me the classic case. ... "

Hhhmmmm ... first paragraph of the article, as the example used for "war terrorism", he does refer back to the second world war. Does he, however, mention any of the Axis powers? Yes ... Japan ... as a victim of "terrorism". Hiroshima is mentioned, but not Pearl Harbor. Hilter's systematic attempt to eradicate an entire race of people is absent (despite the fact that his definition of "war terrorism" is "the targeting of people who are, in both the military and political senses, noncombatants"), but the American act that ended the war is "terrorism".

This, then, is the "real" political thinker you invite us to "face up to"? Dressing banality up in bigger words and longer sentences doesn't make it any less banal.
posted by MidasMulligan at 7:44 AM on February 9, 2002

MidasMulligan: He doesn't use a lot of "big words." The article is not at all jargon-laden. The sentences are rather short, or at least short enough for anyone with an 8th grade education and an attention span greater than an average house cat to process. (They are long compared to a great deal of today's annoyingly choppy punditry. Also, no pop culture references here, but so what?) Besides, the author supports U.S. military action, which I suppose you didn't notice, having been irked by the Hiroshima reference. There is, however, something in that article to offend everyone.

Oh, and Miguel: There are other intellectuals out there besides political theorists. Foreign Affairs is a good place to start for alternatives to punditry, although I promise you will find a vastly larger amount of jargon and longer sentences there.
posted by raysmj at 8:04 AM on February 9, 2002

"... Besides, the author supports U.S. military action, which I suppose you didn't notice, having been irked by the Hiroshima reference ...".

I did notice. I was not attempting to simply label him left or right. I do think, however, that Hitler - both in relative and absolute terms - took terrorism and the expression of evil to a scale that had not been witnessed in centuries, and hopefully will not be witnessed again (Bin Laden is a petty schoolyard bully next to Hitler). To reference WW2, ignore Hitler, and point at Hiroshima is absurd, and is the mark of a B level philosopher, who plays with concepts, instead of using concepts to represent real things. The thoughts, mindset, and actions of Adolf Hitler are an order of magnitude beyond the current "terrorists" on earth.

Many thanks for the reference to Foreign Affairs. As a subscriber, and as one who attends CFR talks now and then - an interest that comes from a degree in Political Economics - I've been at least slightly exposed to a few "intellectuals". Michael Walzer is somewhat known in academic circles, but is considered more of a minor player - certainly not the "most original and intelligent pluralist alive".

Probably the single best thing I've read on the subject of state terrorism is Hannah Arendt's classic "On Totalitarianism". But suspect this is unlikely to be discussed here.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:24 AM on February 9, 2002

Midas: I wonder how much of this problem stems from people trying to speak to issues in contention rather than generally accepted facts. This doesn't deny the facts, it merely leaves them as an unspoken assumption. I think we'd all accept that Hitler's actions fall under state-sponsored/run terrorism, and that they were far worse than the actions of the Allies, but Hiroshima is still debated, and more interesting because of it. I have the same problem arguing w/ my father on occasion. By nature, I like to keep the discussions to areas of disagreement, and occasionally he'll construe this as a denial of obvious facts to support my political causes. Not, true at least not intentionally; it simply gets tedious to bring up the fact that Hitler was worse every time we want to discuss Allied "war terrorism".

This may not have been the best arena for something like that. Then again, appealing to an act that isn't generally thought of as terrorism may drive the point home better than something that is reflexively accepted as such.
posted by apostasy at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2002

MidasMulligan: Why would Arendt be unlikely to be discussed here? You just brought her up. I've delved fairly deeply into her work, thanks. (You think she was never controversial or despised by anyone?) Walzer's definition of "war terrorism," in any case, entails the use of terror to end a war. Terror, he suggests, is used to "turn the hand" of leaders. Hiroshima certainly fits there. I think he was including it only as a means of saying that the U.S. has not been perfect or totally innocent over time. He could have thought of a dozen or so better examples, rather than anything involving World War II, but he chose Hiroshima. So be it. George Kennan brings the bombing of civilians up as an example of the U.S. painting itself into a dark corner (and doing wrong) in "American Diplomacy." Does Kennan constantly mention how evil Hitler was? No. He doesn't have to. It's understood, especially by his audience.

Walzer, similarly, doesn't have to spell everything out. (Maybe he was suggesting that the victim in the latest terror should not go too far, in which case the reference is connected to the author's conclusions.) In any case, not agreeing with that one reference does not mean you should attack his nonexistent "big words" and "long sentences." If you are schooled in such matters, by all means contribute some substantive criticism. It would be welcomed here.

Do you think you're the only person who's ever earned a college degree in a related field, by the way? I'm a doctoral student in PoliSci.
posted by raysmj at 9:10 AM on February 9, 2002

One more. Actually, Walzer defined "war terrorism" as "the effort to kill civilians in such large numbers that their government is forced to surrender." The Holocaust would come under the definition of "state terrorism," unless you include the Jewish citizens of other countries who were slaughtered. Hitler's aim was genocide there, though, not the surrender of anyone. The German bombing of London, on the other hand, would certainly fit into this category.
posted by raysmj at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2002

" ... Do you think you're the only person who's ever earned a college degree in a related field, by the way? I'm a doctoral student in PoliSci..."

No I don't think I'm the only person. But your tone was somewhat condescending, so I responded in kind.
posted by MidasMulligan at 11:07 AM on February 9, 2002

"In kind?" I didn't list anything about degrees or experience or attending conferences. You want respect, then treat others with respect.
posted by raysmj at 11:22 AM on February 9, 2002

I'll say for the benefit of those who haven't checked out the linked article that it's much more accessible than it sounds from Miguel's description. I don't know why the FPP was written in such a baiting manner, though: to ask are we too caught up with banality ... to actually face up to the thoughts of a real political thinker? suggests that some intellectual's rhetoric is more troubling than the reality in which we find ourselves, which I believe is specious.

Maybe it's just that this is three months old already, and seems to set out things that are widely regarded as truisms by now. I didn't, in other words, find this especially challenging, so I'm wondering, Miguel, what exactly you saw in it that's allegedly so hard to face.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 AM on February 9, 2002

I'm also not so sure what it is we don't want to face up to, other than the fact that it takes time and effort to read more difficult articles. Walzer asks the right questions, although some of the answers could stand a bit more expansion and debate. For example, organizations of a magnitude comparable to Bin Ladin's don't go undetected in Latin America, due to heavy CIA / US corporate presence and, uh, "participation." (The unpleasant implications thereof deserve ongoing examination.)

I could get snippy and grouch, "Go read Cordesman's 'Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland' and get with the program- terrorism is the use or threatened use of CBRN weapons by non-state actors!" But I won't.

Erudite ones, any *links* to specific Foreign Affairs articles? I never got that advanced degree in PoliSci, so help me out. The value of MeFi is the intelligent, directed filtering capabilities which only humans can provide.
posted by sheauga at 1:07 PM on February 9, 2002

Well it looks like we all have Ph.Ds in political studies of one kind or another! ;) Mine was in political philosophy. Dhartung, my intention here was precisely to show how accessible it is. Most of the greats - Arendt, Strauss, Oakeshott, Nozick, (on the right); Rawls, Walzer, Dworkin, Raz(on the left) - are much easier to read - and a lot more interesting, original and brave than the so-called analysts.

Walzer is a special case because, apart from being a brilliant theorist, he's an activist and a polemicist. Why shouldn't his ideas be discussed here on MetaFilter?! The level of discussion here is usually very high - and I should know, as I've been lucky enough to participate in some of the best post-doctoral seminars going.

I'm sorry if the wording of my post lead people to believe it was difficult. Political philosophy is about how societies should be politically organized. Therefore anyone can - and should - join in. Its style - as exemplified by raysmj's arguments and comments in dozens of threads - is much more fertile and conducive to discussion than the usual point-scoring debating culture.

Political theory, political science and international affairs(as exemplified by Foreign Affairs,etc)have specialized vocabularies and are, well, dry and boring to whoever's not into it. Political philosophy is lively and universally understood. And it's - really! - important.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:14 PM on February 9, 2002

A MetaFilter reader called Thom Carlson send me this comment by email, asking me to pass it on. I hope it's OK if I post it here:

"Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people, at random, in order to spread fear through a whole population and force the hand of its political leaders
[Michael Walzer]

The immediate conclusion, of course, is that the Sept. 11 attack was not terrorism. The targets were not random: the WTC had been privatized to a Jewish conglomerate last summer, and the plane that hit the Pentagon was steered to within 60ft of the Special Ops office at the Pentagon, banking in for sharper focus. The particular flights were chosen carefully: the earliest in the day, so that the least number of workers would be at the WTC, and the fewest number of civilians on board. It was clearly not an attempt to spread fear: more fear could have easily been generated by dropping the planes anywhere in midtown Manhattan or the Bronx, or by flying into the Capitol or White House in Washington. In short, it was the most brilliant executed military action we have witnessed, a measured response to the 'precision' bombing of Iraq that killed at least 36,000 innocent civilians outright and killed hundreds of thousands more innocent civilians as a byproduct through disease and famine."

Thom Carlson
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2002

The immediate conclusion, of course, is that the Sept. 11 attack was not terrorism. The targets were not random:

Actually, Sept 11 *does* fit Walzer's definition of terrorism. When Walzer uses the word "random" he doesn't mean random in the view of the terrorists. I'd highly suggest reading Walzer's seminal work, Just and Unjust Wars for elaboration. The "randomness" describes how the act appears to the victims. Why the WTC and not LAX or Disneyland? The target seems appropriate given the perpetrator's ideologies, but that doesn't make it "non-random." The "random" aspect is designed to make the targeted group (not the immediate casualties, but the group to be "terrorised," or panic-striken), feel that it *could have happened to them,* and I'd say that was definitely true of September 11th.
posted by lizs at 3:23 PM on February 9, 2002

lizs is right. The only way anyone could fit Thom Carlson's definition of "random" is if they just loaded up a bomb in a truck, hooked it up to a detonator controlled by a random number generator, and started driving around the country until eventually, the right number came up and it exploded, whether in the middle of NYC or the middle of an empty cornfield in Iowa. And even then you could argue it's not really "random" since they're always going to be driving somewhere in the US.
posted by aaron at 4:18 PM on February 9, 2002

Thom Carlson is smoking crack.

If they did not intend loss of life, there are approximately 14 hours of the day during which there would have been fewer workers in the towers and immediate vicinity. Rather, it was timed for when people would be at work, which indicates a desire for maximum loss of life.

The attacks had been in planning and production since well before the Silverstein lease. The likelihood that a skilled pilot could accurately target a single office in the Pentagon seems small, and the pilots do not appear to have been especially skilled (although the "American Reichstag" tinfoil hat crowd continues to argue differently).

The flights were chosen for the abundance of jet fuel, and the low number of passengers gave the 5-man teams better odds at maintaining control of the plane.

If it was "clearly not an attempt to spread fear", why did Taliban statements speak of more planes falling from the sky and bin Laden exult on his videotapes of the fear he believed now gripped the nation? Ignoring these data points indicates a polemicist. Thom, go running back to Zmag; they won't rip apart your arguments there. Maybe you can find others who admire the military "brilliance" of these murderers.

Jesus. What a troll.
posted by dhartung at 10:43 PM on February 9, 2002

Just as further evidence of the indymedia-level propaganda Thom is peddling, Human Rights Watch estimated Iraqi civilian casualties at 2500 to 3000, not the proffered figure of "36,000 killed outright" -- unless Thom wishes to include military deaths, in which case he's changing the rules of the debate, without telling us. (The Iraqi government itself claims only as many as 2,300 killed by the air campaign.) Other reliable sources put the number of combat deaths only as high as 22,000.

The indymedia crowd have also made a small cottage industry of uncritically passing around the charge that "half a million Iraqi children dead as a result of sanctions", based on an estimate by Unicef -- but what they never tell you is that it's a number based on an extrapolation based on an estimate based on a dodgy survey covering areas where not even Unicef actually has access.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 PM on February 9, 2002

"Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people, at random, in order to spread fear through a whole population and force the hand of its political leaders.
[Michael Walzer]

The immediate conclusion, of course, is that American governments have repeatedly committed and sponsored acts of terrorism.

Is that a troll? I don't really care.

And by the way, dhartung, with regard to the "half a million Iraqi children" stat, well, you're half right.

"In July 2000 a more thorough Unicef survey suggested the previous figure was double the truth, ie 250,000 children might have died. But as sanctions had been going on twice as long by then, the statistical total remained the same.

Unicef said: 'If the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in the country as a whole in the eight year period 1991 to 1998.'"
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:24 AM on February 10, 2002

Paul Virilio has been talking about terrorism in an intelligent and thought provoking (and maybe prophetic) many for ages.
posted by none at 5:17 AM on February 10, 2002

A MetaFilter reader called Thom Carlson send me this comment by email, asking me to pass it on. I hope it's OK if I post it here:
Actually Miguel, it is not okay. Those who want to post here should respect the rules and sign up when that is available. Having said that, may i add that I enjoy your posts and comments and presence at MetaFilter very much, and you should not dilute your fine contributions by posting for others. That's just my .0000742 worth, and not a criticism.
posted by Mack Twain at 12:16 PM on February 10, 2002

mack --

Membership to MeFi is currently closed, at least as of two days ago. I do not think that it is appropriate for you so indicate that proxy posts are not ok in light of that fact.

Also, I agree with Thom. The WTC/Pentagon attacks were military attacks as much as our bombing campaigns are terrorist acts. I'd say neither is either. There are direct witnesses to massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan speaking out. People forcefully grabbing at "good" sides of black/white dualities, while pushing "bad" sides away is a mark of a biased discussion. To say that US bombs = Military + Justice while Al Q. bombs = Terror + Injustice might be a rough approximation of the dynamic we are witnessing, but this model fails under scrutiny. We all wish the world were simpler but this does not make it so.
posted by n9 at 1:32 PM on February 10, 2002


I agree. It's a weird situation. Specially because Thom can't reply and, judging from the clarity of his comment, I feel he would have. I myself don't feel comfortable in this thread because I feel morally constrained not to criticize his post, with which I disagree strongly along the lines of the "two wrongs don't make a right" objection implied by stavrosthewonderchicken's lucid statement, for the same reason. Though by posting it by proxy I have already signalled that I thought what he had to say was cogent and worthwhile.

So I guess the rules exist for a reason and I won't do this anymore. Though it is difficult when you have an intelligent and genuinely relevant and sincere comment looking at you from your inbox; you don't know the guy; and you feel sad that circumstances have left him out.

It's not as if people are clamouring to be let in. This was the first time it happened to me...
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:01 PM on February 10, 2002

Although this has been debated before here on MetaFilter, here is an email I just received from Thom Carlson, backing up his claims. It would be inconsiderate and incoherent not to post it:

Civilian deaths in the Gulf War: approximately 35,000 Iraqi citizens



"Special Article: Effect of the Gulf War on Infant and Child Mortality in Iraq"
New England Journal of Medicine, September, 1992, vol. 327, pp. 931-936. By Ascherio A., Chase R., Cote T., et al. Excerpts (emphasis added):
Abstract. ... Conclusions. These results provide strong evidence that the Gulf war and trade sanctions caused a threefold increase in mortality among Iraqi children under five years of age. We estimate that an excess of more that 46,900 children died between January and August 1991.
The age-adjusted mortality rate from diarrhea rose from 2.1 per 1000 person-years before the onset of the war to 11.9 per 1000 person-years after the war. The age-adjusted mortality rate from injuries rose from 0.55 person-years before the war to 2.25 per 1000 person-years after the onset of the war.
Our data demonstrate the link between the events that occurred in 1991 (war, civilian uprising, and economic embargo) and the subsequent increase in mortality. The destruction of the supply of electric power at the beginning of the war, with the subsequent disruption of the electricity-dependent water and sewage systems, was probably responsible for the reported epidemics of gastrointestinal and other infections.
War is never good for health. ... During the Gulf war, it was suggested that by using high-precision weapons with strategic targets, the Allied forces were producing only limited damage to the civilian population. The results of our study contradict this claim and confirm that the casualties of war extend far beyond those caused directly by warfare.


From the Washington Post Weekly, July 8-14, 1991, article by Barton Gellman:
[Speaking of U.S. bombing of Iraq's civilian infrastructure, Secretary of Defense] Cheney later told reporters, every Iraqi target was "perfectly legitimate," adding, "If I had to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing."

Thom Carlson
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:06 PM on February 10, 2002

That 35,000 figure is cited in the CNN link, but as Baghdad's claim. Is that to be taken uncritically?

Thom, why not direct some of your guiltmongering at Saddam Hussein, who builds swank palaces instead of attending to his peoples' needs? Or in fact is there only one group of people on earth who are subject to moral judgement -- Americans? Do you believe that the Iraqi people are capable of making moral choices and acting to remove his regime and change its behavior among nations, in which case they must bear some fraction of this moral burden? Or do you believe instead that they are a wholly captive people with no power and no culpability, and in this case, what actions would you suggest on their behalf? Surely not another war -- that would be bad. And you've made your view on sanctions known.

Standing aside while Saddam gasses them again? Does that sound good to you?
posted by dhartung at 4:33 AM on February 11, 2002

it's important to question walzer's logic, whether you think america's
response is correct or not. you don't have to think al qaeda are
heroes to want a solid understanding of what is happening.

and i don't think his reasoning is very good (but i'm not a political
science doodah) - it seems to me that by accepting the terrorism label
and dismissing any attempt to udnerstand motives he's fixed his

(there's a bit more argument here, but it's a self link).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:01 PM on February 12, 2002

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