Monday, July 17, 2006

The specific vs the general

In my article in Hafta today, I discuss Camus' The Just, and argue that it is important, as we think about how to respond to terrorist violence, that we preserve our own humanity, that we recognise that we are dealing with other human beings and not with abstractions or symbols.

It is tempting, when faced with an invisible enemy, to generalise - to see the actions of specific people as being representative of their religion, their nationality, their race or caste. This is violence by proxy - the usual argument is that putting 'pressure', often through violence or the threat of violence, on those we perceive to be associated with the crimes will somehow cause the crimes to stop. Over the last week I have seen variants of this argument repeated numerous times on the blogosphere (see for instance, the comments to Amit Varma's post on Comment is Free last week), many of them championing 'action' against Pakistan or against Muslims.

The argument usually made against such points of view is a practical one - violence by proxy doesn't help. Most people are quick to point to the example of Israel - as good a demonstration as any of the inability of violent measures to stem the tide of terrorism. In fact, as has often been argued, such violence only helps to fan the flames of vengeance and makes it easier for terrorist organisations to find fresh recruits. And that I think, is not just true of violent acts against particular communities. Attempts to target and marginalise particular communities in any way are always self-fulfilling - if you treat a group of people as terrorists or criminals, you increase the probability that some of them will prove you right.

What surprises me is that we would need to look beyond our borders or to historical examples to see the truth of this. After all, we ourselves have been subject to repeated violence (both from the terrorists and from Pakistan) over Kashmir. Has any of that violence made us more amenable to the idea of withdrawing from Kashmir and acknowledging it as an independent state? I think not. If violence or the threat of violence doesn't work on us, why do we think it will work on anyone else?

But as we try and argue against such violence by proxy, there is, I think a second argument to be made - a moral one. If we believe that it is justified to attack individuals based on their affiliation to a particular nation or religion as a means of putting political or social pressure on them, if we believe that it is valid, when faced with a threat to our own existence, to punish individuals without giving them due legal process or the right to defend themselves, then what exactly is our problem with the terrorists? Those are, after all, exactly the beliefs that they're operating on. In making an argument that justifies violence against those not proven to be criminals we commit ourselves to a barbaric Hobbesian world, a fight to the death, where morality and principle no longer hold any meaning and the one who 'wins' (and it will be a Pyrrhic victory) is the one who happens to have the most strength / luck.

There is no 'rational' reason why we cannot make that choice. But it is important to recognise what that choice entails - it entails choosing a world where happiness and safety become impossible, where human life as we know it loses most of its meaning. The point is not simply that attacks on innocent Muslims will achieve nothing and will only strengthen the cause of Islamic terrorists; the point is not simply that is inhuman to attack people who have no connection to these terrorist attacks, who are just as much victims as the rest of us and who have, in effect, just as much ability to stop the terrorists as anyone else (although all of those are valid points). The point is also that once we accept as a principle the idea of violence against abstract categories of people being justified, there will always be those we see as others to attack (or those who see us as others to be attacked by) - there is no end to us vs. them.


None of this, of course, applies to the morons who are blocking my access to blogspot. All through the weekend I kept reading about how a few ISPs had blocked blogspot blogs and despite what seemed like pretty convincing evidence I managed to believe that is was all some sort of minor glitch and that conspiracy theories involving government bans were largely overreactions. It will all blow over by Monday, I thought.

My apologies to everyone I doubted.

Now that pretty much every ISP in India seems to be blocking blogspot (which means if you're in India and reading this - thanks - I appreciate your making the effort), I don't think there's any doubt that this is some sort of government initiative (though possibly magnified out of proportion). And that makes me extremely pissed off.

At any rate, in case you haven't seen this already, do check out the Bloggers Collective Google Group. 2x3x7 will continue on blogspot for now - access through Bloglines and via pkblogs should still work. I'm still hoping this thing will blow over soon. If it doesn't, then I may decide to switch to Wordpress after all.

P.S. I don't want to push the parallel too far, but I can't help noticing that this blocking of blogs is precisely the kind of generalised action that I'm arguing against in this post. A few blogs might have objectionable content. But we don't have a means to target them. So let's go ahead and shut down all blogs, rather than trying to go after the few we want to hit. It's easier doing it this way. And who cares if thousands of other bloggers suffer? Or that this sort of incoherent action won't actually stop any really determined person from carrying on with whatever he or she was up to?


-Mahjabeen said...

I have no comment specific to the post- I am just really impressed at how consistently you blog! thanks! it makes for great coffee musings before work-

confused said...


I disagree. Calling for action against Pakistan and Muslims are two different things. Please do not confuse the two.

Ok, here is my question. For last 20 years, we have faced Pakistan supported terror in Kashmir. We have not taken any action against Pakistan except threatening not to talk to them. According to your cycle of violence theory, why has terrorism against India not stopped? To make generalized statements calling for stopping violence is nice, but to ignore the geopolitics is foolhardy.

Also, what is Israel supposed to do with all those terrorists? Turn the other cheek?

With all respect, Falstaff, your argument is deeply flawed.

confused said...

Just add to the previous comment,

Is there any significance to your mentioning Pakistan and Muslims in the same sentence.

If there is none, my apologies.

Falstaff said...

mahjabeen: Thanks

confused: Huh? Who said terrorism against India would stop by not talking to Pakistan? Terrorism will stop by attacking terrorists - doing nothing is not an option. I'm not for a moment advocating turning the other cheek. I'm advocating finding the criminals and punishing them. But not attacking random people - whether Muslims or Pakistani citizens - who have nothing to do with terrorist violence.

Yes, Israel should attack terrorists. But bombing Lebanon's cities is not attacking terrorists, it's attacking innocent civilians living in Beirut. If it's justified for Israel to do that, why is it not okay for Lebanese militants to attack Israeli civilians?

You say my argument is deeply flawed. I don't see why. Nothing you say in this comment suggests that we'd be safer / happier if we were to attack Pakistan. On the contrary, the parallel with Israel suggests that we'd be considerably worse off.

Just to be clear - I'm not suggesting that we not talk to Pakistan or not try to put diplomatic pressure on them to cooperate with us in stopping terrorism. Just as I'm not suggesting that we let terrorists we catch go scot free. I'm suggesting that we continue to follow due process - whether in trying criminals (and punishing people only when they have been proven to be guilty, after being given a fair chance at defending themselves) or in engaging with other countries through diplomatic means.

Szerelem said...

Firt of all, I landed in Delhi yesterday and couldnt access any of the blogger sites...and didnt know what was up till i read the papers this morning. Thankfully i now have a way around that but this whole thing is just so frustratingly ridiculous!
Secondly, i agree with totally with what you say about generalised action. Some (allmost all?)of the worst atrocities in history have been perpetrated by exploiting feelings against a stereotyped other - muslims, jews,armenians, bosniaks.
Its funny how the generalised view so often wins over a persons own individiual experience or encounter with a particular group...

confused said...


Ok, and yes, we have been doing all that for last 20 years. Talking and then not talking to Pakistan, mounting diplomatic pressure. When has that achieved anything? So, what I am advocating is not an open war. A precision military strike which takes out the terrorist traning camp. Other wise, this is most brilliant, one country will keep sending terrorists to another country, secure in the knowledge that they will never pay the price. Only the other country will. Why should WE pay the price? I am all for protecting Pakistani citizens lives, but not at the cost of Indian lives.

Yes, we catch the terrorists here and give them the due process of law. I am all for it, but what are we supposed to do about a nation state which hides terrorists? Why have all diplomatic offenses failed to yield criminals like Dawood who caused the 1993 blasts?

So according to your logic, Americans should have mounted diplomtic offensive aginst Taliban after it refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden? Am I reading you correctly? So, Osama could contniue to sit in Afganistan and direct terror attacks against the mainland. And no, he is not able to that now, despite all the mistakes Bush has commited, there has been no follow up to the 9/11.

When I said deeply flawed, what i meant was that you are assuming that Pakistan is actually helpless against terrorist. It is actively pushing in the terrorists in India. How is it different from sending in your regular Army except of course it benefits Pakistan to fight a low intesity war while it bleeds India. Suppose instead of pushing terrorists, they pushed in their regular Army , would you still advocate monting a diplomatic offensive? A state mounted terror attack cannot be countered by diplomatic niceties.

About Israel, you still have not told me how does it target Hizabollah which sits in Lebanon and fires rockets in Isreali cities? How can they be countered without mounting attacks in Lebanon? Also, what kind of diplomatic offensive would work when Hizabollah is out of control of the Lebanon government itself?

A nation state first and foremost duty is to secure the lifes of its own citizens, and then worry about others.

Falstaff said...

szerelem: Yes, this ban is a pain, isn't it.

confused: the whole point is a) that killing Pakistani civilians will not save Indian lives - it will only give the terrorist more justification for their action, convince more people to join them, make it harder for us to get Western support and increase the chances of war between India and Pakistan and b) by your logic, if India threatens to launch strikes against Pakistan, killing innocent Pakistani civilians, why shouldn't they get to kill our civilians as well?

Certainly we can take out terrorist sites. If have acceptable evidence that they do in fact house terrorists. Who's going to decide what's acceptable - make all such action subject to criminal trial with full public disclosure after the event - if the courts rule that the evidence of terrorist activity was insufficient, the people who ordered the strike get put in prison.

Notice that the Israeli attacks on Lebanon or the US Invasion of Iraq don't meet these standards, the destruction is hardly targeted or limited to terrorist hide-outs, the destruction is general. And accountability for who gets killed is low or non-existent.

But what if we can't take out the terrorists without killing innocent civilians? Then, yes, I do advocate not taking such action. I don't believe it will do anything to secure the lives of our own citizens - all it will mean is that we too are participants in a culture of violence, that we too are terrorists.

Dipanjan said...

I strongly agree with your position against violence by proxy. But I am not sure if we can restrict ourselves just to individuals, handle terrorism like any other law and order issue and not deal with the abstractions at all.

If a certain racial, religious, ethic or linguistic group within a population is statistically a lot more likely to involve in a certain illegal act, isn't there some usefulness in researching that group characteristic - an abstraction?

Not as a basis for blanket judgements and actions against all members in that group, but as a tool to identify a pattern and reduce/eliminate the vulnerability of that group?

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