Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

How to deal with terrorism – an ethics perspective

with 3 comments

I like philosophical perspectives on cultural and social phenomena, because they go beyond explaining them but try to give ethical and universal instructions on how to act. One of my favourite authors in this sense is K.A. Appiah and his writing on cosmopolitanism and identity politics.

In a 2003 article in Loyola of Los Angesles Law Review, T. P. Seto explores terrorism from an ethics perspective. Can we condemn terrorism, based on consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics? Each of them, he concludes, is unsatisfactory because they fail in being culturally neutral and provide little practical guidance. It’s a recommendable read for anyone who wants to explore the meaning of terrorism could be and the moral dilemmas of accepting or opposing it lie.

I want to quote the final section of the article here: Based on the previous argumentation, Seto gives guidelines of how societies may ethically deal with terrorism. Any solution, he argues, must be long-term to be successful and tackle the foundations of terrorist movements:

Punishment is moral. We therefore must punish, as we have. In the absence of a common ethos of reciprocity, however, punishment is likely to feed a cycle of mutual defection. In the short run, we can seek to disrupt the organizational structures that make terrorism possible. Unfortunately, terrorism requires very little organization; the Israelis have attempted this solution for decades, and have utterly failed. The only real long-term solutions are (1) expansion of our We to include the terrorists, or (2) the genocidal elimination of populations that feed the terrorists. The second is inconsistent with our internalized moral codes, for good reason; it is also impractical in most circumstances. Were we to try to eliminate all Muslims in the world, we would probably pay a price too high to contemplate; if we did, most would conclude that we got exactly what we deserved. Our only real choice is to work to expand our We—to develop an ethos of reciprocity that includes the terrorists, even as we punish them.

It shows that, from a pragmatic standpoint, it is counterproductive to invoke anything like a war of cultures / clash of cultures as these cement the We-Them dichotomy that terrorism feeds on. Terrorism uses violence which is normally prohibited by any culture and is only perceived as just because it is used against individuals and groups that don’t belong to a shared system of values and solidarity. 
For a society that faces the threat of terrorism, trying to extend the “we” and including groups that are perceived as not belonging to the system of values and solidarity is the only option: Israelis must extend their cultural understanding to accomodate Palestinian identity, Western European or US culture must open up to accomodate Muslim identity as part of theirs, Spanish culture must acknowledge Basque heritage and culture, etc. Doesn’t this mean cultural relativism and giving in to terrorism? No, Seto says, if we strike the balance between inclusion of the excluded and punishment of political violence that is a result of the exclusion:

What matters is not our perception; it is rather the perception of those sympathetic to the defendants. If we can obtain an apparently neutral international imprimatur for the September 11 defendants’ trial and punishment, my theory predicts that their sympathizers will less likely believe that further retaliation is required.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] M­or­e: H­ow to dea­l­ with­ ter­r­or­is­m­­ – a­n et… […]

  2. What the heck?! How does “the genocidal elimination of populations that feed the terrorists” result in “eliminate all Muslims in the world”? The populations that feed the terrorists would be the world population.

    By “the terrorists”, does he mean only “terrorists who are Muslim”? If so, then all such terrorists would be Muslim by definition.

    Restructure!

    April 27, 2009 at 6:05 am

    • Sorry for the late reply … i had the comment notification on an inactive email address for a while, as I just noticed. Anyway, it’s fixed now.

      Regarding his formulation that you quote: I took it out of context (the example of 9/11) and I am quite sure that this section is deliberately meant to be absurd. I think he wants to raise two points: 1. would it be justified to go after sympathizers of terrorists (Al Qaeda in this case)?; and 2. Where can the line be drawn and by what social classifications could sympathizers be identified anyway?

      It’s mental acrobatics, but I think he’s got a point.

      henrik

      June 2, 2009 at 2:28 am


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