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?