Saturday, July 08, 2006

Analysing Terrorism

Frances Kamm gave a keynote talk on terrorism for last week's AAP conference, continued in yesterday's CAPPE seminar. She distinguished the conceptual issue of what makes an action "terrorism" from the nearby moral issues, and made some interesting remarks about each. I'll briefly sketch a couple of the highlights below.

We might initially think to define "terrorism" simply as intentionally causing harm and terror to non-combatants (NCs), whether as a means or an end, but not merely as a side-effect of some other purpose (cf. "collateral damage" from bombing military targets). But what if the intention was so constrained as to make no difference? Kamm asks us to imagine a "Baby-Killer Nation" that intends to kill NCs, but only on the condition that they have the "cover" of also destroying a legitimate military target. They will only act in situations licensed by just war theory, such that the harm to NCs is proportional to the military objective, etc., yet it's the harm and not the military objective that they truly care about. Does that count as "terrorism"?

Kamm claims not, and offers the following analogy: Suppose you intend to kill your Enemy, but only on the condition that you have the excuse of "self-defence". (But further suppose you don't really care about your self-defence; if anyone else tried to kill you, you wouldn't prevent them.) So you patiently wait until Enemy attacks you, at which point you seize the opportunity to kill him at long last. You intended to kill him, rather than defend yourself. It's the former outcome you really care about. Nevertheless, Kamm claims, your act is one of self-defence.

(I'm not really sure where my intuitions lie in these cases. They seem borderline -- I don't think my concepts are so well-defined as to determinately apply either way. Feel free to report your intuitions in the comments.)

It would be interesting if Kamm is right about this, as it suggests that intentions play less of a role in determining an act's "type" than we might normally expect. Instead, what's crucial seems to be whether one does or would (in counterfactual situations) act differently from how one with just military intentions would act. Though I should emphasize that the above only applies in cases where the "cover" is sufficient to make the act permissible. Kamm allows for intentions to influence the act-type of impermissible acts, so equivalence with unjust military intentions wouldn't help. (Analogy: suppose your retaliation against Enemy would cause many innocent bystanders to die, and hence would be impermissible in the first place. But if you went ahead, intending only to kill Enemy rather than defend yourself, this supposedly would not qualify as an act of "self-defence" after all.) So that's a curious purported link between the conceptual and moral issues.

On to morality, then. Is terrorism always wrong? Well, no, if the stakes are high enough it's always possible for a prima facie deplorable act to be all-things-considered justified (cf. "ticking time tomb" justifications for torture). But Kamm also pointed to a class of less fantastical counterexamples, by invoking the "principle of secondary permissibility": roughly, that pareto improvements on a permissible act yield another permissible act.

Suppose an act of terrorism could achieve the objective whilst causing a proper subset of the harms that would be caused by a justified military action. For example, you might target a subset of NCs who would otherwise die as "collateral damage" in any case; but the ensuing terror would cause the enemy to surrender just as the full-blown military strike would. Recall we have stipulated that the military strike would be morally permissible. But the terrorist strike is a pareto improvement: it is better for some, and worse for none (all those killed would have died anyway). So if the former is justified, then the latter surely is too. So the terrorist strike would be justified.

Kamm suggests that this might be true even if the latter act would have been wrong in the absence of the former. That is, it might generally be impermissible to achieve an objective by resorting to terror tactics. What's special in the above case is that it is a pareto improvement on another permissible act. Most terrorist acts lack this form. (They are not usually pareto improvements on other permissible acts. There is not usually any permissible way to kill the targeted individuals and more!)

I'm a bit dubious of that claim, though. If we're assuming factual omniscience here, then we might as well be full-blown utilitarians and accept optimal acts of terror even in the absence of the prior permissible military strike. (Indeed, hypothetical justification should be enough. If it would be permissible to kill those innocent people as collateral damage if doing so would destroy a hypothetical military target that would help us win the war, then surely an actual pareto-improvement on this justified hypothetical action will itself be justified? Why should it matter that there isn't actually any such military target here? Such absence precludes one of the imagined two permissible ways to win the war, but the second is still available in the actual case!)

Conversely, if we're assuming a more realistic human fallibility, then we can't be sure that the terrorist act would be a pareto improvement -- who knows what unforeseen consequences it might have? Who can be sure that all the victims would have been harmed anyway? Maybe some would have escaped the military strike? -- and so nor can we be sure that the terrorism would be permissible after all. We might have indirect utilitarian grounds to instead prefer a blanket ban on terrorism, even in cases where we think the principle of secondary permissibility might apply.

Three more issues of interest arose from Kamm's second talk:
1) Suppose the terrorists are aiming at political influence by scaring the citizenry. (Perhaps they wish to improve U.S. foreign policy.) Suppose the citizens have independently realized that their foreign policy sucks and ought to be changed, much as the terrorists would hope. Should the citizens instead hold firm, to avoid any risk of falsely appearing as though they can be influenced by terrorism? (That could otherwise create very bad incentives, after all!) Note that this problem also has application to the Muhammad cartoons controversy, as discussed in my old post "Exercising the Freedom to Offend". More generally, if reasonable demands are made in an unreasonable (e.g. violent) way, should we respond by spiting both them and reason? It's a tricky problem, but I think I incline towards the affirmative. (Discouraging unacceptable tactics may be more important than making the best decision on particular issues. Though I suppose terrorists might then try reverse psychology! What would Bush do if al-Qaeda demanded that U.S. troops remain in Iraq?)

2) While we focus on "standard terrorism", which involves harming NCs, it's also worth considering the status of "non-standard terrorism" which causes terror in a population by harmless means (say bombing a deserted park, or dropping spiders over an arachnophobic population, or teaching biology to children). While it's still prima-facie wrong to induce terror in people, this is presumably going to be a lot easier to override than cases of genuine physical harm. (Exceptions may involve ongoing and extended threats. Living in a perpetual state of fear couldn't be much fun.)

3) Kamm distinguishes "mechanical" from "non-mechanical" non-standard terrorism. Roughly, the former bypasses the targets' rational faculties, instead achieving the objective by getting targets to react on "reflex", e.g. a human stampede. The non-mechanical version instead exploits cognitive weaknesses, e.g. irrational fear, the salience heuristic, cowardice, etc., and thus in some sense partially offloads responsibility to the victims themselves. (Example: terrorists have indirectly made America a worse place. They've achieved this by scaring Americans into making America a worse place.)

Now, the question arises: which type of manipulation is worse? More generally, is it worse to directly usurp another's agency - say by orchestrating "mechanical" reflex responses - or to indirectly manipulate them by corrupting their agency, so that the person comes to freely, albeit irrationally, choose as you wish them to?

Plausibly, the latter is worse for the victims. It is worse to be corrupted than to be used, for in the former case you become partially responsible, and so inherit part of the blame. (One would be shamed to realize that they had helped the enemy when they could have done otherwise, if not so weak-willed. To be directly used, by contrast, would merely cause anger. "How dare they?" rather than "How could I?") Nevertheless, the former, "mechanical" manipulation is plausibly the morally worse act. It is more disrespectful to the victims' humanity. You control them, whereas in the non-mechanical case you merely let their own flaws work to your advantage. (This distinction may rest on invalid folk-psychological assumptions, however. One might question just how much control we really have over our psychological flaws, for instance. Perhaps it is no less manipulative. See my old post on Extended Mind-Control.) So that's potentially a case where degrees of harm and wrongdoing seem to come apart -- precisely because of the shift in responsibility.


  1. > Kamm claims not

    I guess it depends on what you’re trying to find out. If you are just trying to figure out a label (self defense or not self defense then my intuition is to not care. If you are trying to determine if it should be viewed negatively (e.g. carry the negative connotations of murder or terrorism) then it is intent that matters because the question becomes "which person should we (society) be wary of, or sanction.

    Thus I would say the act's type is determined by how you view language. Fundamentally I might view it to be terrorism and you not and it could bee an extremely deep difference in how we view language biased on a philosophical difference. (I.e. you’re not going to solve it) I.e. you would just like all the consequentialists and the “moral fetishists” and whoever else along various sides of the debate.

    > So the terrorist strike would be justified.

    Sounds like a pretty short term perspective. Is it possible that the world would be similar if lets say the USA had a war with china and people were killed in the battle OR if USA had a war with china and huge numbers of civilians (but not the soldiers lets say) were killed by bio weapons.

    Besides it challenges the definition of terrorism that it would not have wider side effects. Terrorism seems to be designed to have wide side effects.

    > Should the citizens instead hold firm, to avoid any risk of falsely appearing as though they can be influenced by terrorism?

    Depends on the situation I guess.
    I’m concerned that that will corrupt/confuse your thinking. I.e. it is better to do the right thing and ALSO attack the enemy than to do the wrong thing in order to attack the enemy.

  2. I think the basic assumptions for this debate are flawed: I wouldnt really say that killing civilians EVEN IN WAR is justifiable! Maybe if you consider it more, you might find that killing combat units itself isnt particularly justified, because in the end combat units are still humans!! Ok, maybe the combat units implicitly agreed to die by joining the military, which *might* justify killing them, but even war doesnt justify killing civilians.

    I think if someone wants be consistent with themselves, they either claim that killing anyone is justifiable (ie. living in complete anarchy); Or killing is never justified!!

    Sure maybe what im saying isnt practical, but i think the debate itself also not particularly practical as well...

  3. It seems to me that two separate issues need to be clearly distinguished with respect to your discussion of the implications of our limited knowledge regarding the consequences of potential actions. Surely the fact that we often cannot know whether certain (terrorist) acts that we are considering are pareto improvements on other permissible acts, or whether such acts will have disastrous unintended consequences, is a reason to adopt a decision procedure that strongly limits (or perhaps eliminates entirely) the possibility that we will choose certain types of acts. But that doesn't necessarily mean that acts of these types are always wrong. Indeed, it is precisely our limited knowledge that demands that we adopt decision procedures that will likely lead us to choose the wrong act in certain unusual circumstances, because if we were to develop dispositions such that we would be likely to choose the right act in those circumstances, we would also be very likely to choose wrong acts in other, more ordinary situations. Even this, however, doesn't mean (at least not in my view) that certain general rules that ought to be part of our decision procedure can never be broken. If one happens to find herself in circumstances that are so out of the ordinary that they are rightly not even considered in the formulation of the best decision procedure, then the certain elements of the decision procedure can be reasonably ignored.

    For example, I think that the heinousness of engaging in torture combined with the sheer improbability that torturing someone could ever be useful (for example, in saving lives), makes it the case that there should be a general rule within all of our decision procedures against using torture in any circumstances; any less stringent rule would open the door to abuse and rationalization of wrong acts. I also think that there should be a tough law against torture that is generally applicable (i.e. that applies to military and government personnel, overseas or not, and in wartime or not, as well as to the general public). But at the same time, if an individual happens to find himself in a situation in which he is essentially sure that an individual has important knowledge about, say, a bomb that will soon explode and kill thousands, and also sure that torturing the person will allow him to obtain the information (which is almost never the case), then I think torturing the person to gain the knowledge is the right thing to do, and would support pardoning her for her (still illegal) conduct. It is extremely important, though, that individuals know that engaging in torture, no matter what the circumstances, carries serious risk; if the torturer is wrong about her victim's involvement in or knowledge of a crime, then she should face serious penalties.

  4. I think there could be an argument for punishing her for her illegal behaviour while finding it morally upstanding.

    The punishment being a deterant to indistiunguishably similar decisions.

  5. Regarding Kamm's other issues of interest number (1):

    The stated goals of West Germany's Red Army Fraction (RAF, the so-called Baader-Meinhof Gang) were to:

    1. Use acts of public violence

    so as to:

    2. Lead the Government to introduce increasingly draconian laws

    leading to the penultimate objective of:

    3. The reimposition of Fascism

    which would in turn lead the population to:

    4. Rise up against Fascism and thus create a communist state.

    In this framework, acts of violence were clearly political actions, whether called terrorist or not. I find it hard to see them as immoral when they are so naive. Step 2 definitely occurred (eg, members of the West German Communist Party were removed from all publicly-funded jobs), and perhaps it is possible to imagine Step 3 even happening, although only after a long period of time. But it is very hard to imagine Step 4 happening, particular given a trajectory which began with the leftist violence of Step 1.


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