Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ Category

Rand Paul interview

May 17, 2015

On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Fairfield’s Central Park.

As you will see from the transcript I’ve produced below, my questions sought to pry into Paul’s philosophy of government. I asked these for a couple of reasons, one was that I had no idea what answers he would give and I was genuinely curious what they would be, but also to gauge the depth of Paul’s philosophy, to determine whether he had carefully contemplated the issues or was spitting out bromides.

My commentary on the exchange, and my general thoughts on Paul informed by his speech that afternoon, follow the transcript.

I had a little trouble getting my recorder to start, so by the time the transcript starts I’ve been talking to Paul for a few seconds. During that time, I told him I wanted to begin by asking him questions about philosophy. That is why the introduction appears abrupt.

Hallman: What justifies government itself? Coercion seems like it’s wrong when it’s done by private individuals. It’s commonly believed that when government does it, that is an exception, that there is something special about government that justifies its coercion. What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion? To put it more pointedly, why is taxation not theft?

Paul: I think the best way to answer this is that we all inherently believe that for me to use coercion to tell you to do something as an individual is wrong. We have this idea that there is a non-aggression principle that aggression is something we shouldn’t use on another individual. Governments do use aggression and do use coercion. I don’t think we give up on the principle of saying it’s wrong, what we do is we acknowledge that it’s wrong, but we acknowledge that we want as little of it as possible. So really, it’s an argument that government that governs best, governs least because you have to give up some of your liberty to have government.

Now, if you want to be a purist and say all aggression against other individuals, governmental or individual, is wrong, then you’d believe in no government, but most of us believe we need some government, we need some stabilizing force in society, and so you give up some of your liberties.

I always tell people there are two reasons we minimize government: there’s the liberty argument and the efficiency argument. The liberty argument is, if you tax me 100 percent, then I’m zero perfect free. [If you] tax me 90 percent, then I’m 10 percent free. So the thing is, we want to minimize taxation because it is a form of coercion. So we don’t want a lot of it, we want a little bit of it if we have to have some government.

The efficiency argument is what Milton Friedman put forward, and Milton Friedman said nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as their own, so it’s an argument for not giving a lot of money to a distant government, because they’re not very wise in how they spend it, and if you have to give it to a politician, you’d want to give it to a more local politician because you have more interaction with that politician, and ultimately you’d rather keep more for yourself because you’ll make wiser decisions than government.

Hallman: Yes, certainly. I’m not against all forms of coercion. What I was trying to get at is if you think there is something special about government that gives it political authority. That is, is there something about government that allows it to coerce people in a way that private individuals cannot? Surely, we understand there are extreme cases where a private individual can coerce someone [such as] in the case of self-defense or to prevent something very terrible from happening. I guess what I’m trying to get at is …

Paul: Most societies, in their original state, decided there would be a social compact.

Hallman: Ok, so it’s a social contract argument?

Paul: It kind of is, but nobody actually signs it.

Hallman: Right.

Paul: It’s an unstated, acceptance or agreement among a community that there will be some government. It isn’t abandoning the principle that government has to use coercive force. It’s acknowledging that, and trying to minimize that.

Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?

Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.

Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.

Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.

Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?

Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.

[Questions by the radio station]

Hallman: Senator, I wanted to ask you a question about the use of drones and drone strikes. Of course, you became very famous for the drone filibuster you did a few years ago. The United States military is operating under a protocol that allows it to claim a very low number of civilian deaths because of how it counts civilians. Any male who is military age, whether they are armed, whether they’re a known member of al Qaeda, regardless of their identity, is counted as a combatant in a drone strike. Is that something the federal government needs to change … that the military needs to change that policy, to look at how it conducts drone strikes?

Paul: Yes. If you look at what we do, I think drones like any other weapon, can be useful in war, but I do think that ultimately there is an infinite amount of people who will rise up once you eliminate one level of leaders … another group lines up. Inevitably, there are accidents that happen, when a bomb lands on a wedding party, you inflame the thousand relatives of those people for the next … until memory is forgotten, which is sometimes centuries. So, we have to protect ourselves, but we also have to be aware that we have to do it in a way that does not make the situation worse.


To my opening question, it sounds like Paul thought I was asking him “Why is coercion justified?” and not the question I actually asked, which was, “What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion?”

After having a day to reflect on this question and why Paul did not answer it directly, I don’t think the question was too vague, and that Paul couldn’t tell what I was asking. Rather, I think the question is so rarely posed to legislators that Paul did not have a prepared response to it. I don’t fault him too much for this, since I’m fairly certain I would have gotten the same response from the other 99 senators.

When I clarify that I’m not asking about coercion generally, but specifically about the difference between governmental and private coercion, Paul alludes to the supposed “social compact,” while immediately acknowledging that it’s not a real compact that citizens have agreed to.

Social contract arguments do not make sense to me. The reason contracts have moral force is that the parties agree to them, so the fact that the social contract was not agreed to means it does not have the force of an ordinary contract.

My views on this subject are influenced by having just read Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority,” in which he counters arguments for political authority, including social contract arguments. One variation he considers, and perhaps the one Paul meant, is a hypothetical social contract, one that we would have agreed to had we known all the facts, or something like that.

Imagine someone who is knocked unconscious and needs a life-saving operation, but we cannot obtain the person’s consent before operating. We can surmise the person would have agreed to the operation had they been able to, so we are justified in operating on the person. Is this analogous to a hypothetical social contract? No. In our example, the reason we are justified in operating is that the patient cannot consent. If the patient remains conscious and informs us they do not want an operation, we are not justified in forcing them to have one. This is analogous to how we find ourselves in the face of government coercion. We are in a position to consent to coercion, just like the conscious patient is able to consent to the surgery, so therefore government must obtain our consent before governing us. It cannot rely on hypothetical agreement when actual agreement is achievable.


One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:

Friedman: Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?

To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.

Immigration restrictions appear to cause misery on a level the welfare state does not and could not based on any reasonable expectation of how Congress would respond to a large influx of immigrants. (If 600 million people immigrated to the country, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes, because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.

The average Haitian experiences more than a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States, so my contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.

I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.


I was a little disappointed in Paul’s answer to my question about drones, although I admit it was not well formulated. Perhaps what I meant to ask was more along the lines of “Is it moral to kill military age men whose identities we don’t know?” but it came out jumbled.

Paul’s answer focused entirely on the blowback from drones and not on the potential wrongness of using drones to kill, which is what I was clumsily asking about. For instance, perhaps there is nothing wrong with hitting a beehive since bees have little to no moral worth, but it is still imprudent because the bees might sting you. But when we’re talking about firing a missile at a house or a car full of people, we’re not talking about bees, we’re talking about humans, and while bees might not have moral worth, humans do.

Paul did not give any indication as to whether he thought all military age males in a “strike zone” should be regarded as militants or not.


Paul gave a fantastic speech that afternoon that could have been lifted from the Libertarian Party’s platform. He touched on many civil liberties issues such as his opposition to the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and his opposition to civil asset forfeiture. I felt I was witnessing a sea change in the Republican Party as the crowd applauded Paul’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Libya. Although, here again, I was dismayed that Paul chose to focus on the ways in which the wars helped America’s enemies rather than on the deaths they caused.

He denounced detaining American citizens indefinitely without a trial, without clarifying whether it was also wrong to detain a non-citizen indefinitely. He mentioned the case of Richard Jewell, who some members of the media believed was responsible for the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, but who in fact helped to evacuate the building upon discovering the bomb. Paul used the case to caution against jumping to conclusions about the guilt of potential terrorists.

“What would have happened if Richard Jewell had been a black man in the 1920s?” Paul asked the crowd.


By the end of the day, one thing about Paul was clear: He is the most libertarian presidential candidate who has a chance of winning. He is among the few candidates I’ve interviewed who is explicit in recognizing the wrongness of coercion and the presumption of liberty that advocates for government must overcome.

To that point, it is possible and even likely that other candidates will be more libertarian than Paul on select issues, but on the whole I believe Paul will be the most pro-liberty candidate in the field.


As Paul was walking out the door, I showed him Michael Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority” and told him to read it. I explained that it had convinced me of the correctness of anarcho-capitalism, and I told Paul that I believed an anarcho-capitalist society was attainable. I mentioned that I knew Paul’s father Ron was familiar with Murray Rothbard, another anarcho-capitalist (Rand said he knew Rothbard, too).

Before entering his car, Paul told me that our current society was far removed from anarcho-capitalism, and that we would never get there without people like him moving society in that direction.

If Rand Paul becomes president, and the government comes crashing down, now you know whom to thank. ☺

Andy with Rand Paul_net


A renaissance for Uncle Joe?

July 9, 2012

The United States has never done anything so ghastly as the “Great Purge” in the Soviet Union, in which hundreds of thousands of politically undesirable people were killed in the 1930s. However, you begin to understand why Stalin tired of trials and went straight to executions when you hear a former Congressman favor targeted killings because they avoid courtroom costs.

Letting die and letting be murdered

January 14, 2012

You’ve probably heard about the act/omission distinction, about how people have different attitudes toward killing someone versus letting them die.

I’d like to break down that “letting die” category further into two sub-categories: letting someone die by failing to save them from a rights violation versus failing to save them from other causes.

An example of the first would be when you allow someone to be murdered. An example of the second would be when you fail to provide them with food or medical care.

Are those two kinds of letting die equally bad? What about if the entity doing the letting is the government?

Suppose the government rearranged its budget so that it stopped putting any money into anti-terrorism efforts and instead sought to eliminate malaria from the world. Is such a move justified as long as we prevent more malaria-related deaths than terrorism-related deaths?

I get the sense that most people think that letting a murder happen is worse than letting someone die of disease, but I don’t know if I share this view.

Okay, stop throwing around “terrorist”

August 10, 2011

Instead of accusing our opponents of supporting “terrorism,” I propose a moratorium on the word. Let us all agree to take the time to explain why the support of this or that group is so bad. The article I link to does a pretty good job of that.

Intentions don’t matter II: war & terrorism edition

February 1, 2011

What is the moral difference between killing someone intentionally and killing him accidentally? This question comes up when we talk about war and terrorism, and the difference between the two. In the public consciousness, there seems to be something morally distinct about accidentally bombing a school that’s near a military target and planting a bomb in that school with the aim of blowing it up.

We have a couple questions to answer. First of all: Are these two acts morally distinct? And second of all: How are they different?

I think that intentionally murdering someone is usually worse than accidentally killing someone. My reason for thinking this may be different from the reason other people would give, which in turn explains why I also have a different view of collateral damage than most people.

One possible reason we might have for judging the acts differently is that in one case the perpetrator wants the victim to die whereas in the other case he does not. In the case of the US, I think it’s fair to say that in many of its wars since WWII, its collateral damage has been unwanted, meaning that it would have preferred that the victims not die (it is harder to make this statement about its bombing campaigns in Japan and Germany). Al Qaeda, on the other hand, bombs buildings with the expressed purpose of killing the people inside.

Many people seem to think this is a key reason the US and al Qaeda are not on a moral plane, even if the US actually kills more people in its counter-terrorism operations.

I think it’s a mistake to focus on what a person wants to happen. Why? Because wanting something doesn’t mean very much. Actually, I think it’s meaningless. If we encounter a drowning child in a shallow pond, we might hope and pray the child swims to safety. But wanting it won’t make it happen. The fact is that the child will drown if we don’t save him, but that would entail getting wet. Someone who turns away a drowning child just to stay dry is guilty of a deeply immoral act, regardless of that person’s desires. I don’t think that is a controversial statement.

Another reason “wants” don’t count for much is that even most murderers think of their killings as regrettable necessities. If they got to design their own perfect world, they probably wouldn’t be a murderer. White settlers in North America just wanted to make a living. They didn’t want to dispossess and make war against the American Indians. I’m sure that if the whites had their druthers, the natives would live like royalty (just as long as they lived somewhere else). Al Qaeda wants the US to leave the Middle East. If the group could accomplish that without terrorism, if they had a magic wand that could whisk American troops back home, they’d use it. But they don’t, so they look for other options.

“All right, smarty pants,” you say, “if desires don’t count for anything, then what does?” If you think about the examples I’ve used, you may be able to see it already. In the drowning child example, we think that a child is clearly more valuable than an article of clothing. The right thing to do is to sacrifice the clothing for the child. In the second example, you can’t kill someone just to make a better life for yourself. Their right to life is more important than a few more acres of farmground.

Have you figured it out? We don’t care about what a person wants, we care about what they’re willing to trade. We recognize certain moral facts that pertain to value judgments, such as the value of a life, of a piece of land, and of a piece of clothing. We may not have exact values like you’d see in a grocery store, but we’re able to put them in some kind of order. We all recognize that a life is worth more than a pair of pants. We don’t condemn someone for wanting to protect their clean underwear. We condemn them for wanting to preserve it more than someone else’s life.

I think this explains pretty well why we condemn murder most of the time but make exceptions in instances such as self-defense. Killing someone to take their money is wrong because the victim’s life is clearly more valuable than the money is to you. But killing someone in self-defense means that you value your own life more than the life of the attacker, and that doesn’t seem wrong at all.

It also explains why we condemn even an accidental killing if the death were foreseeable and caused by your recklessness, but not as much if the death were unforeseeable. If I’m on the highway, re-enacting a scene from Speed Racer, and I run a stop sign and kill someone, people will rightly say that I’ve done something immoral, even though I didn’t intend to kill anyone. I valued the pleasure of my joy-ride more than the high probability of killing someone, and that is wrong. I have my values in the wrong order. But if I’m driving sensibly and kill someone else who’s run a stop sign, we think of that as a genuine accident. In that instance, the mere fact I caused an unfortunate death does not indicate I have distorted values, so we may not condemn me at all.

How do we apply this insight to war and terrorism? Let’s think about 9/11. The purpose of the attack was to force the US to withdraw from the Middle East. How important is that? I think many Arabs feel their religion, culture and way of life are under siege, that they’re being pushed around by a big bully. If the US left, they wouldn’t feel this way, which would be good. But how good? So good that it’s worth killing 3,000 people? Should you trade 3,000 lives for a small chance that the US will withdraw? Even if the chance of success were 100 percent, the idea is preposterous. (Not raising any eyebrows here)

What about US collateral damage in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, etc.? Again, remember that the fact the US doesn’t want the deaths doesn’t mean anything. We know air strikes produce collateral damage, whether the US wants it to or not. War produces large-scale death and destruction, whether the US wants it to or not. The question is, what is the US doing that is so important that it could justify one hundred thousand civilian deaths? I already acknowledged that murder in self-defense, when your life is in imminent danger, is just. Is the US on the brink of annihilation? No, in fact if you read Robert Pape’s excellent book “Dying to Win,” you’ll learn that the insurgents who fight the US want to control their own countries, not the US. They are not about to wage a genocidal war against Americans. The fact of the matter is that the US is willing to trade 100,000 deaths for a little political leverage in a foreign country. It is that valuation, that trade-off, that should serve as the basis for our moral judgment of its actions. And on that basis it is clear that the US is deeply wrong.

Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)

January 6, 2011

[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.

Retracting praise for Alan Dershowitz

December 21, 2010

Earlier this year, I posted a video of a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein. The debate was about Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel.

After watching the debate, I concluded that Finkelstein made mostly ad hominem attacks against Dershowitz, who made much more of an effort to stay on point.

Now, after investigating the matter further, I have come to the opposite conclusion: that Dershowitz has not a single persuasive reply to any of the charges leveled against him and his scholarship in Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah. Further, as revealed in his in-depth analysis of the feud, Frank Menetrez demonstrates that Dershowitz consistently misquotes Finkelstein. In my view, Dershowitz misrepresents Finkelstein so badly that it is hard to say he is arguing in good faith.

Mr. Dershowitz, you can consider my earlier compliment withdrawn.

Justifiable terrorism?

December 2, 2010

I often hear people say that while war is sometimes a necessary evil, terrorism against civilians is categorically wrong. I think this is a mistake. As a utilitarian, I do not believe anything is categorically wrong. However, I understand that most people are not utilitarians, and that they will need some convincing.

Let me start by pointing out something that is much milder than terrorism but still considered usually impermissible: violence. I can’t think of a single person who would go so far as to say violence is always wrong. Hurting someone else is usually wrong, but we can easily think of mitigating circumstances that would make violence just. Violence to save your own life or someone else’s does not seem wrong at all.

At this point, think back on your life on all the times you used violence against someone else. I did this exercise earlier today, and what I remember is using violence as a child against my younger sisters, and also a few times against other boys on the playground. Since adolescence, however, I have no recollection of harming someone else (my friends can correct me here if I’m misremembering the past). What struck me about this exercise was the fact that many if not most of my violent acts almost assuredly made the world worse. And yet, despite having a poor record on the use of violence myself, I don’t hesitate to advocate violence in very select circumstances.

My attitude toward violence parallels my attitude toward terrorism: that it is almost always wrong, except in unusual circumstances. In the case of terrorism, perhaps we should add very unusual circumstances, because terrorism is a particularly ghastly kind of violence. Just as most of us believe violence to save life and limb is justified, I believe that terrorism that prevents an even greater level of suffering is also justified.

I hesitate to list an example of justifiable terrorism, in part because I don’t know of any that is obviously just, that despite its huge cost in human life, increased utility more than available alternatives.

Rather than name a specific attack, I will simply say that terrorism is most forgivable when done by a group of people whose civilization is under siege by a much larger, harshly repressive military. This seems to be true of the Palestinians suffering under the Gaza blockade, the Algerian war of independence against France, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam against the South Vietnamese and American governments, the Chechen war of independence against Russia (mentioned in the previous post), and the African National Congress’s campaign against apartheid in South Africa, just to name a few.

On states’ rights and wars of independence

December 2, 2010

I take the standard libertarian view that coercing another person is (almost) always wrong. Many people extend that view of the wrongness of interpersonal violence to world affairs, where they think it wrong for one state to conquer another.

Perhaps where I differ from most people is that I think state on non-state violence is just as wrong as any other kind of violence. I do not believe states have “rights” to the territory that they control. Think about it. Why is it wrong to acquire power through force (i.e. invasion), but not to maintain it through force?

Take Russia’s actions in Chechnya. In an effort to put down a separatist rebellion, Russia shelled market places, shot up buses full of civilian refugees and basically destroyed the city of Grozny.

Does Russia have a right to do this? No!
Does it have any right to rule Chechnya at all? No!
Am I saying governments should let anyone leave who wants to? Maybe!

If the Chechens were to carve out their own state from Russia, I would still say that they don’t have a right to rule it. But neither did the Russians before them. And it may even turn out the Chechens are worse off in some respects after independence.

But ask yourself this key question: under what circumstances is Chechen independence so terrible that the Russians are justified in using large-scale state terrorism to prevent it?

This is my view of wars of independence in general.

The statistics of terror

October 29, 2010

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect clarifications to certain statistics. Changes are marked in bold print.]

Few issues have dominated the last decade of American politics as the issue of terrorism. And for as hotly debated as it is, the issue is not well understood by the general public.

The issue of terrorism rose to national attention in the 1980s, most notably after the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983 and the downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. It was in the news a few times in the 1990s after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But it was not until Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorism came to consume the public’s consciousness.

The motivation of the terrorists was much discussed in the aftermath of the attacks. The conventional wisdom, then as now, is that 9/11 and many other attacks in the Middle East were a product of Islamic fundamentalism. The theory is that radical Muslims are willing to spread their religion by whatever means necessary, including mass murder. Fighting and dying on behalf of Islam makes one a martyr who is rewarded with everlasting life. This explains why the terrorists commit suicide.

Although that has been the dominant narrative post-9/11 (even among smart people who usually care about evidence), it is not the only explanation proffered for suicide terrorism. A few years ago, a political scientist from the University of Chicago named Robert Pape began collecting data on suicide attacks to see what role Islam played in motivating terrorists. Pape catalogued every case of suicide terrorism in the world from 1980-2003, something which had never been done before. Pape discovered that half of the 315 suicide attacks were not committed by Islamic fundamentalists.

The world leader in suicide terrorism during this time was the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group in Sri Lanka (off the coast of India) fighting to establish an independent state on the north side of the island. The Tigers are ethnically Hindu but identify as a secular Marxist organization, not interested in the afterlife.

About one-third of all Muslim suicide attacks were committed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK) in Turkey, north of Iraq. Like the Tamil Tigers, the PKK is a secular Marxist group, which is fighting to create an independent Kurdistan in the eastern part of the country.

As Pape learned more about suicide terrorism, he noticed a common theme running throughout the attacks. He found that in over 95 percent of attacks, the goal of terrorism was to achieve a specific political objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists prize. In other words, the concerns of suicide terrorists are terrestrial, not celestial.

The failure to understand this point has cost the United States dearly. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Pape sent letters to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz warning of a massive terrorist campaign after the invasion. Wolfowitz and many terrorism experts at the Pentagon believed Iraqi terrorism was unlikely because Saddam Hussein was not an Islamic fundamentalist, which they thought was the cause of terrorism. Unfortunately, Pape was right and Wolfowitz was wrong.

Pape has noted that control over territory is at the center of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan as well. The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but from the beginning of the invasion until 2004 its forces were concentrated in the capital city of Kabul. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. added troops to the northern and western parts of the country, home of the Northern Alliance, which helped overthrow the Taliban. During this time, suicide terrorism was relatively rare, with one or two attacks per year. However, suicide terrorism shot up in 2006 when the U.S. moved troops to the southern and eastern parts of the country, home of an ethnic group called the Pashtuns. Since 2006, there have been 100 or more suicide attacks every year in Afghanistan, and 90 percent of them are committed by Pashtuns.

A possible counterexample to Pape’s theory is the decline in suicide terrorism in Iraq following the 2007 surge of 20,000 additional troops. If Pape is correct that terrorists are motivated by foreign occupation, shouldn’t suicide terrorism have gone up? Pape examined the data and found that while the U.S. was adding troops, its allies were withdrawing them at an even faster rate, the net effect being an overall decline in the number of foreign soldiers in Iraq. Pape found a more plausible explanation for the decline in violence, which was that the U.S. paid 100,000 Sunnis $300 each per month to stop fighting, and it worked. Once this group, known as the “Sons of Iraq,” felt secure and comfortable with their way of life, they looked for more constructive uses of their time than blowing themselves up.