Sunday, January 5, 2014

Genocide, Terrorism and the Idea of Justice

A lonely person with black umbrella at the snow-covered beach

That genocide and terrorism are inherently and morally wrong and should be condemned and censured sharply is evident and beyond doubt. Here I will try to give a purely rational explanation of how both genocides and terrorist acts are in essence unjust and never justified. I will not look at their moral or political ramifications, but will focus merely on the issue of justice. My goal is to prove that such acts should never be allowed under any circumstances as they oppose and contradict the very idea of justice.

So to start off, what do we mean by justice? In terms of religion, justice is equated with the adage of eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. Philosophically, we are struggling to come up with a clear definition since Plato. Our common sense notion might be close to that of the Bible, which has clearly affected and influenced our moral views. So let us claim in rather simplistic terms that justice occurs when good people and their acts are rewarded, while evil people and their acts need to be punished. We will for the sake of argument accept the biblical notion of “eye for an eye” for punishment. Again, I am not looking for a just sentence, but am simply considering whether the action can be considered just in and by itself.

Accordingly, I will reach conclusions here that I disagree with morally, but that are at least in some measures deemed just. Case in point is the death penalty. Assuming that the guilt of the accused is proven beyond any reasonable doubt, then it could be considered a just act. It may be cruel, but it falls in line with the idea that justice has been served. Equally, to cut off the hand of a person who robs according to Islamic law may be justice taken to an unnecessary extreme, yet the person in question has indeed broken the law. For the sake of our discussion, we are leaving motivations and intentions aside as they fall into moral, psychological or philosophical territories.

Before we reach the first issue of genocide, let us examine war first. Motivations for war are not important here, but merely its practice. In a war, the soldier has under the circumstances the right to kill an enemy soldier. It becomes a just act to kill others as both soldiers represent their countries at war with each other. But it is unjust to enlarge the field to include civilians. Civilians, if unarmed, ought not to be included in this contract of war. If a soldier kills women and children, he or she is acting in an unjust manner. Although those civilians are part of the warring country, they ought to be exempt.

In this line of thinking, bombings become unjust acts. They kill indiscriminately, and they kill civilians. If you bombed the military headquarters or the parliament, it could be seen as just because those people are officially at war with each other. In that sense, the greatest injustice of all time has been the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which specifically and purposely targeted civilians even if it was meant to end the war and bring Japan to its knees.

So what about genocide? It is evidently unjust because it involves a wide range and circle of people that ipso facto must include a great number of innocent beings. Whether you are targeting Jews, Kurds, or Gypsies, these people are seen and treated as an oversimplified or generalized idea. They are grouped according to their ethnicity. Ethnicity is not something one has choice or say over. You are born to a race and country and to claim that you deserve to die because of something that is completely outside of your control, such as your birth, is wholly unjust.

That includes any type of racially motivated killing as in that case we are putting everyone both the innocent and the guilty in the same pot. It claims to work under the simplistic and extremely dangerous idea that everyone thinks and feels alike if they are from a given race or culture. Although there may be common traits or features among their people, this is generally not true.

In our idea of justice, stereotypes cause injustice as they cannot be applied indiscriminately to all within the group. It would be like punishing your innocent relative with death for the murder that you yourself have committed. In that sense, the biblical notion that sins of the father are inherited by their children is unjust since we do not want to punish those who did not commit any misdeed; their only transgression is to be part of a family or culture, but they are themselves, unless proven otherwise, innocent and blameless.

The same criteria ought to be applied to religions. To claim that all Christians, Jews or Muslims are all alike within their own belief systems is a great folly. There are different branches including radicals and fundamentals in each category, as there are also hundreds of millions who do not wish harm, destruction or religious conquests. Again to kill people merely because of their belief system is another great form of injustice. Not all people under the same banner of religion necessarily think and act alike.

Finally, we reach the issue of terrorism. Now terrorist acts that are not indiscriminate might be seen as just. I know that this is controversial and again I do not agree with it, but I could see politically motivated assassinations as just under certain circumstances. If you kill a politician because they have passed a law that puts innocent people in danger it might be seen as a just act. In other words, these politicians due to the nature of their jobs may put themselves in the line of fire the same way a soldier does. A president's life may be in danger because of their exposure. Those kinds of assassinations cannot be a priori considered as unjust. Those who had attempted against Hitler's life ought to be considered heroes because they were driven by ideas of justice and because their target was a person who is truly guilty.

Yet when it comes to modern terrorism, it is an act of pure injustice. To kill innocent civilians in order to get one's message across is always wrong. I do not subscribe here to utilitarian ideas. The end can never justify the means in terms of justice, so the death of a single innocent person cannot be accepted no matter how noble the cause may be. Instances like the World Trade Center or more recently the Boston bombings are completely unjust and cannot be justified as they claim innocent lives.

Now the terrorist may justify his actions by explaining that there are many innocent people dying in his home country due to the unjust actions of the government of the targeted nation. That may be so, but you cannot claim that each and every citizen is responsible for their government even in a democratic society. For instance, George W. Bush had about a fifty percent vote in his favor. That also meant that about half of the country did not vote for him! We are talking about a hundred million people who might not support him, his party or his policies.

That aside, among those who voted for him, there must be at least some percentage of people who may disagree with his foreign policies. To claim that people deserve to die because they are from a given country is unjust whether it is done by terrorists or by Americans and other Westerners. The implicit idea of terrorism might be to create fear and panic so that citizens put pressure on their own government. That may be so, but that does not give anybody permission to kill innocent people in the process.

As we can see, I believe that it becomes clear that there are absolutely no justifications for genocide or terrorism. Both of them are in direct contradiction to the ideas of justice. Since innocent people are killed in an indiscriminate manner, we cannot ever allow any of this to occur in the world. Evidently, such acts also disregard human rights, the right to life and freedom as well as moral issues. I believe that all killings are morally wrong, but I could be swayed to at least accept that certain killings or even wars may be necessary or be for the necessary good of others. But when it comes to innocent people dying in the process, I cannot ever condone it regardless of race, religion, or nationality. 


Peter Hearn said...

In any discussion of terrorism I feel it's necessary to first define it. This might help avoid statements like this “whether it is done by terrorists or by Americans and other Westerners”. For me terrorism is a violent act committed with the intention of instilling fear in order to achieve a political end. This definition would not include collateral damage. I’m not saying that that makes collateral damage less evil. It just helps to clarify the discussion. The two generally accepted motives for Hiroshima were to 1: scare the Japanese into surrender and 2: halt any planned Soviet advances in post-war Europe through intimidation. Both fit the above definition. This would make the two nuclear bombings the greatest acts of terrorism in modern times and President Truman a terrorist.

Vincent said...

It’s necessary, as Peter proposes, to be clear what terrorism is. I looked up the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and found these definitions:

Terrorism: the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; (originally) such practices used by a government or ruling group (freq. through paramilitary or informal armed groups) in order to maintain its control over a population; (now usually) such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organization as a means of furthering its aims.

Terrorist: A person who uses violent and intimidating methods in the pursuit of political aims; esp. a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.
We see through the above that there can be state terrorism, but it refers to a government or ruling group to terrorize its own people. What a government authorizes and carries out beyond its own borders is part of its foreign policy. It may or may not be illegal, and either way, it may be immoral. (Not that there is any single authority to determine what is immoral—it’s a judgment open to each one of us, open to dispute.
According to the above definitions, the atom bombs dropped on Japan had nothing to do with terrorism.
But then, if we look at the Wikipedia articles on State terrorism and its Debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see the arguments raging hot still.
All I can add is that in history and prehistory, rape and genocide have been common, and I suspect that they are intrinsic to bringing us to where we are today. Terrorism as a means for the weak to fight against the strong through clandestine actions is a modern phenomenon. It is clear that the human race has not outgrown these ugly behaviours by the “have-nots” upon the “haves”. I don’t say this to make an egalitarian argument or to justify the behaviours, but to point out that civilization doesn’t develop evenly, and remind us that such crimes may arise from resentment and deprivation as much as from greed.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you for both of your comments! It is interesting that they are both semantic in nature and are about terrorism, which is on most people's mind these days.

First off, to clarify my point, Peter, the "it" in the quoted passage does not refer to terrorism but to killing people because one thinks they deserve to die. To be sure, such indiscriminate killing occurs more in the war zone, but it can also happen in the name of religion, terrorism, nationalism, what-have-you.

In fact, any anti-terrorist act, meaning the targeted killing of terrorists, could also be construed as a terrorist act. That may be so, but my focus here is not terrorism but actually justice; in what sense would it (terrorism) be justified.

You also pick up on the atomic bombs. I must confess that I decided to sneak that in because I believe there is a third motive I am planning to blog about sometime soon, which is even worse and more unjust. But either way, I reject utilitarian views that such "sacrifice" has merits for history or for the future. In fact, if utilitarianism were to be true then Miley Cyrus would be better than Shakespeare because she makes more people happier than the latter. I gravely doubt that.

Sure, Vincent, you have offered definitions here, but I still do not see how their inclusion would make my post clearer. Evidently when we talk about terrorism people have different conceptions and ideas on it. So be it. My focus is still on justice and whether terrorism is done for political change by the opposed or the weak and downtrodden does not change the fact that innocent people will die in the process unless again the target is the one that is directly responsible for those acts (and civilians are not).

To sum up, in the examples I gave, there is indeed collateral damage and that is why I think it is unjust. I do not take sides here (at least I do not intend to) but want to look at it from a rational point of view devoid of morality, judgement and motivations, as much as it is possible or feasible.

As to genocide and war being part of human nature and history, that may be true, but it also is about time that we clear our heads and enlighten our hearts and learn to see that these are not and can never be just actions.

Vincent said...

I confess that I dodged another question of definitions in my previous comment. When you speak of justice, to me it sounds like morality with another name. When you call something unjust, it seems that you are saying that you disapprove of it, and if we all agreed to disapprove of it, the world will be a better place. Which is what I call morality.

I think of justice as consisting of laws, jurisdiction and enforcement. At any rate, that is the start point of the definition. From there we can talk of "rough justice"; for example where a robber who has terrorized a helpless elderly couple in their own house is pursued by a relative down the street and then battered with a cricket bat, fatally as it happened. (This happened locally, a few years ago. The batterer was acquitted.) Rough justice in other words is when popular opinion says "he got what he deserved", but proper justice would have proceeded judicially.

This rather simple example illustrates what happens in real life, in the heat of passion.

I appreciate that you "want to look at it from a rational point of view devoid of morality, judgement and motivations, as much as it is possible or feasible."

I don't think it is possible or feasible at all, but to the extent that it is, it is morality.

Setting aside the necessary distinction between morality and justice, both depend on opinion, and to a great extent on public opinion, which changes through the ages. There can be no absolute, unless there is an almighty God, who tells us what it is.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Well, Vincent, this time you have hit the nail on the head and you got me (in both senses of the word)! Yes, that issue is indeed the heart of this "thought experiment" I undertook. I wanted to separate morality from justice, but as I was going along I noticed how linked they are to each other. In fact, justice seems to be a moral concept.

So what I did is I diluted the moral precepts by trying to leave out motivations and intentions, such as "I stole the piece of bread because my child was hungry" and by ignoring the degree of the sentence or punishment, in other words, treating a slap on the hand as equal to chopping it off. And I ended with a somewhat crippled version of justice, which at times resembles your example of “rough justice.”

But still I find some of its findings surprising, for example, a criticism of bombings as the accepted idea of modern warfare, which often attacks civilians. In fact, there should be a type of moral restraint or awareness even in the brutal times of war, and one ought to be as fair as possible regardless of one’s situations or circumstances. So at least I hope.