Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)

[Editor’s Note: After discussing this post in public and in private with my friends, I’m willing concede that I’m wrong. I agree with my critics that the facts probably do not support terrorism in the cases I’ve cited.]

Michael Neumann is one of my favorite ethical philosophers. However, I suspect that a great many people will read his essays and think he is despicable, perverse, depraved. Why? Because Neumann justifies acts that most people think are beyond the pale, namely the deliberate murder of children.

In this essay, entitled Israelis and Indians, Neumann compares the struggle of modern-day Palestinians to that of the American Indians in the 19th century. He argues that the American Indians faced annihilation at the hands of the white settlers. Clearly unable to defeat the whites in conventional warfare, the Indians resorted to hitting “soft targets” such as the whites’ children.

Instead of joining the rest of the “civilized world” in condemning child-murder, Neumann defends it. He defends it not on some obscure moral theory but rather on one that is universally accepted: the right of self preservation.

Let’s read how Neumann tells it:

Michael Neumann: The Indians sometimes murdered innocent civilians, including children. These acts were right, wrong, or morally indifferent. Which were they?

I can’t see that they were morally indifferent, can you? Were they wrong? If so, they must have been awfully wrong, because they involved murdering children. Is that what we want to say?

I suggest not. I suggest the acts were terrible, cruel, and ultimately justified. My reasons are familiar to everyone. The Indians’ very existence as a people was threatened. More than threatened; their society was doomed without resistance. They had no alternative. Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.

The Indians had no chance of defeating the whites by conventional military means. So their only resort was to hit soft targets and do the maximum damage. That wasn’t just the right thing to do from their point of view. It was the right thing to do, period, because the whites had no business whatever coming thousands of miles to destroy the Indian people.

Neumann makes the connection to the Palestinians’ struggle:

Michael Neumann: Of course the two situations aren’t quite analogous. Things are clearer in the case of Israel, where virtually every able-bodied adult civilian is at least an army reservist, and every Jewish child will grow up to be one. And the American settlers never spent years proclaiming how happy they would be with the land they had before embarking on a campaign to take the rest of it. One might add that the current situation of the Palestinians is more like that of the Indians in 1880-1890 than earlier, because the Palestinians have lost much more than half of their original land.

The Palestinians don’t set out to massacre children, that is, they don’t target daycare centers. (Nor do they scalp children, but according to the BBC, that’s what Israel’s clients did in Sabra and Shatila.) They merely hit soft targets, and this sometimes involves the death of children. But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society. If peoples have any right of self-preservation, this is justified. Just as Americans love to do, the Palestinians are “sending a message”: you really don’t want to keep screwing with us. We will do anything to stop you. And if the only effective way of stopping their mortal enemies involved targeting daycare centers, that would be justified too. No people would do anything less to see they did not vanish from the face of the earth.

In the same essay, Neumann makes a great point about how both the white settlers and the Israeli settlers are “peace-loving” people.

Michael Neumann: Both groups of settlers somehow contrived, despite these goals, to believe that they wanted nothing but to live in peace with their ‘neighbors’- neighbors, of course, because they had already taken some of their land. And sure, they did want peace, just as Hitler wanted peace: on his terms.

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15 Responses to “Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)”

  1. Bob Says:

    Is it “self-preservation” when it’s preserving a culture’s “way of life” rather than one’s actual life?

  2. David Says:

    Why’d you tag this with Utilitarianism? He’s not using a utilitarian argument, and I think the perpetrators could be expected to know they would not be maximizing utility, and looking back, we know they were not. In fact, it seems like he’s using the same type of group rights-based argument he claimed — in something quoted by you in an earlier post — to find troubling.

    “Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.” This is such bullshit. Wiping out the whites was never a possibility so using that as justification for killing some individual is no justification. Moreover, it’s obvious that not every white was against them (and gruesome violence probably didn’t help the cause of those whites who were legislating on the Indian’s side).

    If he wants to say he is describing the strategy of some Palestinian faction, he should quote them, not speak for them. I doubt if there is really such a neat picture behind the violence on either side.

  3. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks again for the comment, David.

    He’s not using a utilitarian argument, and I think the perpetrators could be expected to know they would not be maximizing utility, and looking back, we know they were not. In fact, it seems like he’s using the same type of group rights-based argument he claimed — in something quoted by you in an earlier post — to find troubling.

    My earlier discussion of “group rights” had to do with whether groups have a right to their own state, which I do not think they do. That is wholly different from whether members of a group should act in concert to protect themselves. How else do people defend themselves when attacked by other groups of people?

    Wiping out the whites was never a possibility so using that as justification for killing some individual is no justification.

    No one is talking about wiping out the whites. What Neumann is saying, at least the part I agree with, is that the whites were going to wipe out the Indians if they didn’t fight back, as evidence of several centuries of the whites’ behavior (and yes, although this is inconsistent with strict individualism, it would be foolish for the Indians to think the whites would cease their land grabs when they showed the power and the willingness to continue them).

    And how should the Indians fight back? The whites are too powerful to engage in combat that pits soldier against soldier. The Indians tried this – didn’t work. The Indians have almost no leverage over the whites because of the huge power imbalance between the two. The only leverage they have is the threat of terrorism. And in order to make that threat credible, they occasionally have to make good on it.

    I think this is consistent with utilitarianism. Why do you think it is not? What, short of terrorism, could have halted the whites’ advance?

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    David, I agree that Neumann’s statement that every white would “contribute to [the Indians’] destruction” is hyperbole. That’s definitely going too far, and it’s not necessary to go that far to justify what the American Indians did.

  5. Andy Hallman Says:

    Hi Bob.

    Is it “self-preservation” when it’s preserving a culture’s “way of life” rather than one’s actual life?

    No, it’s not simply a culture’s way of life. In some cases, the Indians were literally going to be killed. But even if they were just forced to cede power to the whites, they knew the whites were going to run the government for their own benefit, and not for the Indians’ benefit, and the Indians would have been justified in using violence to prevent that, including violence against soft targets.

  6. David Says:

    It is not utilitarian because it focuses on survival of the group, which may perish even if its members (whose welfare are the inputs in utilitarian calculations) survive, and also it privileges the welfare of one group over another. Also, in case you didn’t notice, the Indians did not succeed in halting the whites’ advance. More to the point, this outcome should’ve been pretty clear from early on.

    What’s an example of the good produced by the terrorist attacks on Israelis? Maybe you can start by explaining what murdering the Olympic athletes in Munich accomplished. Have any concessions ever been given? Rather, it seems the attacks have been followed up by military action by Israel, bringing down further misery and land grabs. I suspect it was infinitely worse for the Indians, with any successful attack leading to real genocide. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

    “How else do people defend themselves when attacked by other groups of people?”
    Utilitarianism does not say that people should use any means to protect themselves, even if they are in the right. Especially it does not justify inflicting harm which has little hope of producing good outweighing the harm.

    “But even if they were just forced to cede power to the whites, they knew the whites were going to run the government for their own benefit, and not for the Indians’ benefit, and the Indians would have been justified in using violence to prevent that, including violence against soft targets.”
    I do not understand how anyone can bring up the example of the American Indians as argument for terrorism… it failed!

  7. David Says:

    Also, while you’re working on justifying blanket violence, how about the example of the Indians in India? That is, nonviolent resistance actually leading to the withdrawal of colonial power.

  8. Bob Says:

    “No, it’s not simply a culture’s way of life. In some cases, the Indians were literally going to be killed.”

    No, I think my interpretation of the article excerpt is correct. “But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society.” / “Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.”

    Society. Collective existence.

    “But even if they were just forced to cede power to the whites, they knew the whites were going to run the government for their own benefit, and not for the Indians’ benefit, and the Indians would have been justified in using violence to prevent that, including violence against soft targets.” (emphasis mine)

    I know that Republicans will not run the government for my benefit… Are you suggesting that partisanship is justification for murder? With all due respect, are you f’ing crazy?

    Even if it IS Utilitarianism, then shouldn’t their actions be judged by the outcome?

    They failed, and children died. Bad outcome. Ergo, evil. QED, no?

    One can hand-wave about how “They had no alternative” (which is obviously not true), or about how their actions were “justified” (in spite of being terrible and cruel, no less! Words that really sound morally-relevant), but it comes down to this: assimilation does not justify murder (especially of children). Period.

    Now, you might go back to the fact that the Native Americans were also killed. However, whether or not violence against their killers is justified is irrelevant; the fact is that the linked article was justifying violence against the children, who were not the ones actually killing the Native Americans.

  9. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks Bob and David. This will probably be my last day of responses. I want to move on to something less polarizing, like abortion.

    David: Also, while you’re working on justifying blanket violence, how about the example of the Indians in India? That is, nonviolent resistance actually leading to the withdrawal of colonial power.

    It’s true that Gandhi was non-violent and that he was very influential in Indian society. However, there was also a lot of terrorism directed at the British in the first half of the 20th century such as the assassination of a British Member of Parliament in 1909, as well as Subhas Chandra Bose‘s militia that attacked British forces during WWII. I’m not saying that their acts were justified. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be so quick to chalk up a victory for non-violence in India.

    And I resent the comment about justifying “blanket violence.” I’m doing no such thing. The violence I’ve justified is very limited in scope. I’m saying that if you’re a weak actor, and there’s a bully walking all over you, you should make him stop. If the bully is big and strong, to make him stop you’ll have to hit him below the belt, because that’s the only way he’ll get the message.

    Yes, I know that sounds contemptible, but in my mind the alternative is even more contemptible, which is that you lie down while the bully stomps on your head. And don’t think that won’t embolden him to do the same to others, and I think your analysis neglects that part.

    If the roles were reversed, and it was the Native Americans who were pushing out the whites, I would say the whites would be justified in hitting soft targets. I don’t know why you think I’m privileging one group over another, in that sense.

    It is true that I privilege the weak actor over the strong actor, but the reason there is straight-forward: the weak actor has fewer options.

    I do not understand how anyone can bring up the example of the American Indians as argument for terrorism… it failed!

    But then again, didn’t everything fail? Jewish violence inside the extermination camps could similarly be considered a failure, but I think that’s unfair because non-violence was no better.

    What’s an example of the good produced by the terrorist attacks on Israelis?

    They have had periodic, modest successes such as Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 (which is now under a blockade).

    Maybe you can start by explaining what murdering the Olympic athletes in Munich accomplished.

    Of course I’m not going to justify all terrorism against Israelis. That would be very foolish. I want Israelis to live in peace and security, but to achieve that Israel should retreat to its pre-1967 borders and cease its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel appears to prefer expansion over peace, most clearly evident by its refusal to stop the settlements in the Occupied Territories.

    I suspect it was infinitely worse for the Indians, with any successful attack leading to real genocide. Do you have any evidence to the contrary?

    There were few if any American Indian victories that lasted very long, at least none that I could uncover after searching for a few minutes. You are right about that.

  10. Andy Hallman Says:

    Words that really sound morally-relevant), but it comes down to this: assimilation does not justify murder (especially of children). Period.

    I wouldn’t call Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act an effort to assimilate the Indians. The whites were not interested in assimilating the Indians (not that the Indians should have to submit to that, either).

    I know that Republicans will not run the government for my benefit… Are you suggesting that partisanship is justification for murder? With all due respect, are you f’ing crazy?

    I’m pretty sure the Republicans will not confiscate your home. Although they have been known to assassinate people with drones. Then again, the Democrats do that, too.

    Thanks again for the comments, Bob and David. You can continue to post, and I’ll read your posts, but this is my last comment on this thread.

  11. David Says:

    ”’And I resent the comment about justifying “blanket violence.” I’m doing no such thing. The violence I’ve justified is very limited in scope. I’m saying that if you’re a weak actor, and there’s a bully walking all over you, you should make him stop. If the bully is big and strong, to make him stop you’ll have to hit him below the belt, because that’s the only way he’ll get the message.”’
    Limited how? “Sending a message” is a pretty abstract goal, and a very, very large fraction of the human race lives under a government that is currently or has within recent memory oppressed some group. I think all have wronged some individual.

    And what message will be received? War and occupation isn’t sold to the public on the bully’s side with stories about how weak the other side is, is it? Rather it’s done by portraying the oppressed side as barbaric, as a threat… and terrorist acts bolster that narrative. (Much of our recent military action has been sold at least partly on the basis of preventing terrorism, right? I don’t think it’s different in Israel nor with the international community watching Israel.)

  12. Andy Hallman Says:

    And what message will be received? War and occupation isn’t sold to the public on the bully’s side with stories about how weak the other side is, is it? Rather it’s done by portraying the oppressed side as barbaric, as a threat… and terrorist acts bolster that narrative.

    A few months ago, I would have agreed with you, but then I read this post from Bryan Caplan about German attitudes to killing Jews in WWII. Caplan quotes from the book Bloodlands, which includes this passage:

    In October 1941, Mahileu became the first substantial city in occupied Soviet Belarus where almost all Jews were killed. A German (Austrian) policeman wrote to his wife of his feelings and experiences shooting the city’s Jews in the first days of the month. “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU. Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them in pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water.”

    The point is that sometimes people will find absurd reasons to hate and even kill you no matter what you do. Attempting to win their hearts and minds is futile. You have to give them a better disincentive to attack you, and I think that means threatening violence. It’s the reason the U.S. and Soviet Union did not attack each other during the Cold War. It wasn’t because they liked each other, but rather because each side feared retaliation. Oftentimes, the only kind of meaningful retaliation weak groups can threaten takes the form of terrorism.

  13. Andy Hallman Says:

    I see I broke my own promise not to respond.

  14. David Says:

    I think you’re a blood thirsty monster.

  15. David Says:

    Oops. Sorry. Lost perspective there a bit.

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