Posts tagged Osama bin Laden

Military targets

The news has been full of headlines about the United States killing Osama bin Laden. I don’t have anything in particular to add to what’s already been said on that. But what you may have missed in the rush is that last weekend they actually went for a twofer and tried to kill Muammar Gadhafi too. They didn’t manage to do that, but they did kill his 29 year old son, Saif al-Arab Gadhafi. They did this by having NATO war-planes fire two missiles into a family home. This is what all the news stories talk about.[1] They also killed three of his grandchildren. This is almost never put in the headlines and almost always tacked on as a single sentence with an Also, by the way…. It took about half an hour of searching, but the one story I found with anything to say about the grandchildren — the majority of the victims of this strike — is this article by Richard Boudreaux from the Wall Street Journal. Two of the grandchildren they killed were toddlers, a two-year-old girl, and a two-year-old boy. The other was a baby girl only 5 months old.

Libyan officials called the airstrikes an assassination attempt on Col. Gadhafi, who they said was in the compound but escaped harm, and an attack on a residential neighborhood of Tripoli. The leader’s 29-year-old son, Saif al-Arab Gadhafi, was reported killed while hosting a family gathering. Two of his nieces, aged 5 months and 2 years; a 2-year-old nephew, and an adult friend also died in the blasts, the officials said.

— Richard Boudreaux, Gadhafi Strikes Port After Kin Killed, in the Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2011

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, Commander of NATO’s Military Operations, Said In A Statement that All NATO’s are military in nature. He said that NATO is fulfilling its U.N. mandate to stop and prevent attacks against civilians with precision and care. He said that We regret all loss of life, especially the innocent civilians being harmed as a result of this ongoing conflict.

Here is the military target that Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard had blown up with a missile.

Neighbors said the bombed compound, across town from the Libyan leader’s main residential complex at Bab al-Aziziya, has belonged to the Gadhafi family for decades. Saif al-Arab, the sixth of the colonel’s seven sons, lived there, but it was also used by his parents and other relatives, neighbors said. Its walled grounds encompass two residences; two other buildings, one used as a den and the other as a kitchen; and an empty stable.

Two missiles struck the compound, one stopping the kitchen clock 45 seconds after 8:08 p.m. Several pots of food—pasta, rice, fish, stuffed peppers—had been cooking on an electric stove.

— Richard Boudreaux, Gadhafi Strikes Port After Kin Killed, in the Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2011

The target was a family home in a residential neighborhood. One member of the family happens to be a thug and a mass murderer, and if he died, it’d be as righteous a kill as any in this world. But 2 year olds and babies being set down to dinner have nothing to do with that. But they, not he were the ones who died, in the infinite precision of blowing up houses with air-to-surface missiles, so that NATO could fulfil its U.N. mandate to stop and prevent systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas.

They said that was a precision strike against a known command and control building. They said that they intend to step up strikes against broadcasting facilities and command centers in the capital. They are so sorry, they regret so much, and they are going to do it again, and again, and again.

Somewhere out there, at the bottom of the chain of command, there is a soldier from America or Europe who pulled the trigger and fired a missile into a house full of people on the off chance that it might kill a politically-significant target. He killed a baby and two toddlers instead. He must be so proud.

When he comes back home, people will clap him on the back and tell him Thank you for your service and those of us who suggest that there is nothing noble or courageous about shooting missiles into residential neighborhoods and murdering babies will be told what a bunch of naifs, or ingrates, or wretches we are if we blame those who were just following orders, instead of supporting the troops.

Meanwhile, at the top of the chain of command, there is an immensely powerful gang of generals and heads of state, calling the shots and signing off on the plans to launch missiles on mission after mission like this one, knowing perfectly well that these kinds of aerial assaults, the policy and the tactics that they have chosen to prosecute their chosen wars, constantly and predictably mean killing many times more civilians, families, and children than people allegedly targeted by the mission. They call for this over and over again, in the off chance that one day the massacre will also manage to kill off somebody who matters. All so that that Progressive President Barack Obama can give a press conference and pound a podium and say My fellow Americans to announce another landmark triumph for Justice and American Forces. Those of us who mention all the friends and kinfolks and babies and bystanders they killed in this cynical policy of massacres are accused of being sensationalists, perhaps not even engaged in adult conversation. Those of us who say that governments shouldn’t be launching this kind of aerial assault, given how many innocents it inevitably kills, will be told that we just don’t care enough to try and stop a repressive regime from slaughtering Libyan civilians.

It took me a while to write about this because everything about it it makes me so angry, and so miserable.

See also:

  1. [1] Cf. CNN: One of Gadhafi’s sons killed in NATO airstrike, BBC: Nato strike “kills Saif al-Arab Gaddafi,” Libya says, AP: Libyan spokesman says Moammar Gadhafi survives NATO missile strike that kills his youngest son, etc.

Moral standards

Here’s part of a recent reply to my post on the use of the phrase moral relativism. The original post discussed a controversy over whether or not Harry Truman should be called a terrorist for knowingly and willingly slaughtering civilians — orders of magnitude more civilians than Osama bin Laden (et al.) slaughtered in the attack on the World Trade Center — for the sake of military and political strategy. Here’s how Jamie DeVries tried to make the case that we cannot draw any moral parallels between the two figures:

Here is the question we ought to ask ourselves: )Did Truman have the ability and power to incinerate each and every Japanese citizen, even after a surrender was declared? The answer is: yes. Did he or the U.S have the WILL to do so? The answer: of course not.

Well, that was mighty white of him.

In all seriousness, how much lower could the bar possibly be set for rulers of the Allied governments in World War II? Is there absolutely any atrocity in the name of unconditional surrender that the Court Intellectuals and their countless acolytes would not rush to defend, or at least to excuse? I wish this were merely a bit of pointed rhetoric. But actually I’m asking it as a serious, open question.

Further reading:

Pet Peeves

There’s quite the debate raging over at Catallarchy, in reply to comments condemning Harry Truman as a terrorist as bad, or worse, than Osama bin Laden:

My view is the direct opposite of what they teach in government run schools. They teach that Truman’s action [the use of atomic weapons] was a heroic choice that saved many American lives. With a similar line of reasoning, a friend of mine argued that the massacre of civilians during war may be justified if the reward is high enough. He hesitated to make a judgment in the particular instance of Harry Truman’s wartime actions, claiming that the good of saving American troops at least partially offset the bad of incinerating Japanese homes and families.

Many other men have used logic similar to Truman’s supporters to justify attacking civilian targets to further national objectives. However, I don’t think my American friends would hesitate to condemn their actions because they don’t bat for the home team.

For example, the name Osama bin Laden has taken its place among Hitler and Satan in the pantheon of evil. The reason? He thinks freeing the Arab world from Western imperial influences is important enough to sacrifice civilian lives. We might call him the Harry Truman of the Middle East.

As most Americans condemn bin Laden for putting civilians in harm’s way, so too do I condemn Truman. If bin Laden is a terrorist, then so is Truman. In fact, Truman’s actions are more indefensible because eventual victory was available through conventional military means. For bin Laden, direct military action, against the most feared armed force in all of history, is out of the question.

Americans have a perverse and dangerous view of their place in the world. Until we realize that our civilians are not worth more than other country’s civilians and that our leaders do not operate within a sacred halo that allows them to turn ugly sins into holy acts, America will continue to be a source of great suffering.

Now, I think that Jacob is right on here, and that the shameless apology for mass murder, as long as it happens under the Stars and Stripes, may very well be the most sickening feature in all of American education. But the fish I want to fry today is meta-ethical, not political, so if you want to argue about the massacres at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc., feel free to do so, but the point I want to call attention to is actually off to one side of the debate. Here’s a comment in the thread from Dave, howling in protest (emphasis added):

Jacob’s post is about moral relativism gone out of control. Maybe next this libertarian will compare Timothy McVeigh to Murray Rothbard because both harbored anti-government feelings. Look at the passive posture he wants the United States to assume. …

And blah, blah, blah.

I pick this out because it highlights a pet peeve of mine. The Right—thanks to the influence of the Christian Right and fundamentalist ideas about the nature of secular modernism—have been throwing around the phrase moral relativism in public debate over the past ten or twenty years, and every year that goes by they seem to get further and further from having any clue at all what it means. Here we have a particularly dramatic case in point: not only is there there is absolutely nothing in Jacob’s post which either entails or even suggests moral relativism. In point of fact, Jacob’s comments demand that moral relativism be rejected, and that moral principles be applied universally, rather than applied ad hoc depending on your relationship to the agent being judged.

It’s no sin not to know meta-ethical theory, but if you’re going to use the terms, you ought to know what they mean. Moral relativism does not mean being lax about taboos that you shouldn’t be lax about; far less does it mean drawing a mistaken comparison in ethics. Moral relativism is the doctrine that one and the same action can be both right and wrong at the same time—that is, that questions of moral value can only be answered relative to some frame of reference that can change from one judgment to the next. For example, some people have believed (wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed (also wrongly) that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether or not the person making the moral judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally condemned, or generally considered neutral. (For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see Chapter III of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now, Dave might think that Jacob’s moral principles (for example, that deliberately slaughtering thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians in pursuit of your goals is wrong, no matter what) are mistaken. I don’t think they are, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Jacob is insisting on principled ethical judgments (even if you think the principles are wrong) and he is not claiming anywhere, ever, that the applicability of those principles is relative to the speaker’s feelings, or culture, or relation to the person carrying out the slaughter, or relation to the victims, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary; he’s insisting that moral principles, which he claims we insist on in bin Laden’s case, ought to be applied absolutely and for everyone. That’s an outright rejection of relativism and the excuses for atrocities that relativism so happily provides.

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for these comments:

If you don’t believe that your country’s citizens are worth more than the citizens of other countries — that is, entitled to live even if it means the death of citizens of other countries — I don’t want to be in the same foxhole with you.

But of course the comments come not from Jacob, but from the hawkish Tom, in protest of Jacob’s point. The implied conclusion — that subjects of other States shouldn’t be treated as though they have as much of a right to life as the subjects of your own State — is a textbook case of moral relativism. (Specifically, in this case, the claim that fundamental moral obligations, like the rights of innocents not to be burned alive as a sacrifice for others, can only be decided relative to the relationship between the you and the victim—if you are subjects of the same State then it is not O.K., but if you are subjects of different States, then anything up to and including dropping a fucking nuclear bomb on their heads is, apparently, acceptable.) Maybe Jacob’s principles are right and maybe they’re wrong; but he is employing principles, and insisting that they are universally binding. Tom, on the other hand, is explicitly stating that moral principles are binding relative to one group of people and mere breath relative to another. Yet it is Jacob, not Tom, who is denounced as a moral relativist; this is nothing but darkening counsel with words without knowledge.

The kind of argument that Tom uses is, of course, a method of excuse used all the time by the Right: the idea that any means at all are acceptable in warfare, because our moral obligations end at borders on a map, and so the pursuit of victory can trump any and every other moral consideration. Of course, just saying that a view is relativist is not the same thing as saying that it is false; maybe there are some good arguments for relativism. I haven’t found any, and I think there are decisive arguments against it, but it’s an open philosophical topic. But my concern here is about the proper use of terms, and about consistency; if you are going to support a bloody and unapologetic form of relativism, then you had better argue for it, and you had better not pretend that you’re opposed to it. Yet it seems that somehow the self-appointed arch-nemeses of moral relativism never do get around to condemning this sort of blatant disregard for universality in ethics—perhaps because their situation is as the Prophet has written: We have met the enemy, and they is us.

Hoppe and Churchill: On the Justice of Strange Bedfellows

Ward Churchill and Hans-Hermann Hoppe might not enjoy coffee together very much. I can clearly see the meeting ending in blows. But they do have some things in common, sure: both are radical critics of the State and the social status quo; both are tenured professors at state Universities in the West; and both have recently found themselves in administrative hot water for making controversial public statements.

Churchill’s case, so far, has been more widely reported. Thanks to the heroic efforts of a student journalist using Google, the Know-Nothing blowhard brigade finally discovered that Ward Churchill wrote an essay called Some People Push Back—which has been distributed on the Internet since 2001, and was expanded into a book-length treatment in 2003—in which he described the September 11 attacks as chickens coming home to roost, pointed out that the plane flown into the Pentagon was striking a military target, and that As to those in the World Trade Center … Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. You’re hearing about all this now because Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was scheduled to speak on a panel at Hamilton College in New York on The Limits of Dissent (because God is an ironist, I guess), and after a journalist at the student newspaper dug up Churchill’s essay and wrote a story on it, the Right-wing commentariat saw something they’ve been salivating over for a long time: a perfect opportunity to sink their teeth, hard, into the (allegedly Left-dominated) world of academia. So they deployed a predictable combination of media hue-and-cry and outright threats of violence, and managed to mau-mau Hamilton into cancelling the panel. Now, in hopes of a second victory for silence, they are pushing for University of Colorado at Boulder to follow it up by firing Churchill from his (tenured) professorship. The University’s Chancellor has so far agreed to bring a thorough examination of Churchill’s opinions before the Holy Inquisition:

And Colorado’s DiStefano, after an angry grilling from the university’s Board of Regents — an elected body dominated by conservatives — reversed himself and announced a 30-day investigation of all of Churchill’s lectures and publications. This is the first step, the chancellor said, in the legal process required to fire a tenured professor.

Meanwhile, there have been Web site calls for the resignation of Stewart for allowing Churchill to be invited in the first place.

— Washington Post 2005-02-05

Just a few days later, in Las Vegas, because—again—God is an ironist, anarcho-capitalist economics Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe found himself brought before a disciplinary hearing by the administration at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Hoppe had a formal complaint filed against him by a student for his comments in a lecture on the economic concept of time preference, in which he decided to illustrate the concept by examples, and claimed that homosexuals, as a group, tend to have higher time preferences than heterosexuals—that is to say, that homos tend to prefer immediate gratification over deferred rewards more strongly than straights. He went on to insinuate that the emphasis on short-run effects over long-run equilibria in J.M. Keynes’s economic theories might be explained by Lord Keynes’s fondness for gay liasons. In response to the student’s complaint, UNLV is demanding Hoppe accept a letter of reprimand and a dock in pay in response to a formal complaint filed by a student in one of his economics classes; Hoppe is striking back with a letter-writing campaign and legal assistance from the ACLU.

The anarcho-capitalists who are coming out for Hoppe and the lefty anarchists who are coming out for Churchill might not want very much to do with each other. But both camps are right to point out that both of these cases represent dangerous threats to academic freedom. (Note: threats to academic freedom, not freedom of speech. The two are importantly different concepts, although both are valuable.) Unfortunately, both camps have also developed a maddening tendency to smother the point about academic freedom (or open debate more broadly) in a bunch of rally-‘round-the-black-flag nonsense.

Hoppe and Churchill should not be punished by academic Inquisitors for the contents of their arguments. Academic freedom is absolutely vital to the functioning of a University (as a place of education rather than an indoctrination camp), and it’s absolutely vital to maintain a climate of vigorous, open debate in our culture. But it’s important to note that the reasons for protecting academic freedom apply to bad arguments as well as to good ones: defending Hoppe’s and Churchill’s freedom to make arguments without fear of professional reprisals doesn’t require defending the arguments they make. And that’s a good thing, because Ward Churchill is a dick, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe is a homophobic bigot. Their arguments shouldn’t be defended, because those arguments are indefensible.

It ought to be transparent why Hoppe’s claims are offensive—and I’m frankly tired of seeing libertarians play innocent on the matter. Hoppe’s latest comments are only the latest in a long record, and I’m frankly baffled that Ilana Mercer or anyone else would take seriously the notion that describing the comments as only a generalization about how homos usually prefer immediate gratification more strongly than breeders is supposed to make it less offensive. Does anyone think that Hoppe’s left-field ad hominem argument—insinuations that poofery might explain errors in Lord Keynes’s economic thought that Hoppe finds particularly grave—is really a vital teaching tool? Or that it doesn’t make his other comments on homosexuality and gratification seem just a little, well, bigoted?

Churchill’s essay, for its part, is a farrago of confusions, logical fallacies, and flat-out lies. Most of the nits aren’t worth picking here; what is worth pointing out is that the central theme of the essay depends entirely on the claim that when America—that is, the American government—goes on a rampage around the world, we are acting like bullies, and so we have no grounds for complaint when we are ruthlessly slaughtered by people [who] push back. The problem here is that the people picked out by the we changes with every use: the people who did the rampaging and bullying are the government and its agents; the people who are complaining are, I guess, ordinary Americans; the people who were ruthlessly slaughtered were a couple of thousand workers, the overwhelming majority of them neither involved with the military nor holding any foreign policy position in the U.S. government, who happened to commit the terrible crime of going to work one Tuesday. But the people are not the government, and they are not owned by the government. They are mostly—we’re anarchists here, remember?—the victims of the government. We didn’t attack Iraq; we rarely if ever have meaningful control over the war-policy machine that has wrought so much misery in the Muslim world. The crimes of the United States government do not license crimes against civilians who happen to be in the United States; any more than the crimes of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein license crimes against civilians who happen to be in Afghanistan, Iraq, or whatever other part of the Muslim world the Leviathan is planning to stomp through next.

Churchill’s critics have repeatedly been accused of misunderstanding his arguments and taking his words out of context. Now, I have read the whole essay through several times, but you never know. So perhaps one of Churchill’s defenders could explain to me exactly what the proper, contextual understanding of this is:

In sum one can discern a certain optimism — it might even be call humanitarianism — imbedded in the thinking of those who presided over the very limited actions conducted on September 11.

Their logic seems to have devolved upon the notion that the American people have condoned what has been/is being done in their name — indeed, are to a significant extent actively complicit in it — mainly because they have no idea what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

Or, while we’re at it, this:

And when they do, when they launch these airstrikes abroad — or may a little later; it will be at a time conforming to the “terrorists”’ own schedule, and at a place of their choosing — the next more intensive dose of medicine administered here at home.

Of what will it consist this time? Anthrax? Mustard gas? Sarin? A tactical nuclear device?

That, too, is their choice to make.

During the HUAC era, many people in the U.S. were drummed out and blacklisted from teaching because they were genuinely associated with Stalinist parties in the United States. That was wrong; but you shouldn’t have to act like Stalinists were anything other than dupes or bloody-minded opportunists to make the case that the blacklisting and the anti-Communist witch hunts were wrong. The case for their academic freedom shouldn’t have been contingent on their having the right beliefs. And the same is true for both Churchill and Hoppe: the fact that they are wrong does not mean that they should be fired.

I’ll be writing a letter on behalf of both of them; defending both Churchill and Hoppe from the administrative goon squad is important. But we shouldn’t let a siege mentality dull critical thought. The reason Churchill and Hoppe are in hot water is that they made controversial statements which are rationally indefensible and deeply offensive. The problem is the administrative response to the controversy, not the controversy itself; the way to respond to terrible arguments, among rational adults, is with other arguments, not with politically-driven intimidation.

Let’s begin.

Media Punditocracy Cuts Women out of the Discussion

For the past 5 years feminists have been doing most of the work in understanding and combatting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is one of the largest and most firmly-established anti-Taliban resistance groups in the world. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan has been the authority in the US on the Taliban regime for nearly five years (Eleanor Smeal has given briefings to Congress on the topic and has testified before a joint hearing of two U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittees). Acclaimed journalist Saira Shah lived undercover as an Afghan woman (with the assistance of RAWA) to make her groundbreaking documentary, Beneath the Veil. Because the first victims of the Taliban were women, women and women’s groups, abroad and also in the U.S., are the most credible authorities on the Taliban regime.

And yet, somehow or another it ended up happening that only 12% of television programs have featured women as experts on the post-September 11 crises [FMF], even after the U.S. alleged the complicity of the Taliban in the attacks. Instead, they are trotting out the predictable crowd of old white male pundits: generals, retired CIA operatives, State Department cronies. In the time since September 11, I have seen networks, without a trace of irony, put Bob McNamara, Henry Kissinger, and Oliver North in front of the camera as experts on what we ought to do about international terrorism. Well, I guess they ought to know—when it comes to terrorism, maybe it takes one to know one!

So, while the media drumbeat for the war continues it’s the same old cock-swinging commandos droning on about Afghanistan. The same CIA and State Department cronies who propped up the Mujahedeen and the Taliban in the first place, who trained Osama bin Laden because they believed that foreign jihadi were more reliable opponents of the pro-Soviet regime than locals. And since women’s voices are being silenced, no-one much seems to be pointing out that Afghan women were the first and most horrifically victimized by the Taliban regime. That Afghan women, who are imprisoned in their homes and banned from driving or travelling without a male relative on pain of death, cannot escape the cluster bombs dropping over their heads. That women continue to be oppressed our equally thuggish allies in the Northern Alliance (who are nothing more than the old Mujahedeen). That women have repeatedly been cut out of the tribal councils on forming a new government, and the U.S. government can’t be bothered to give a damn whether or not equity for women is brought up as an issue in the formation and constitution of a post-Taliban State.

The mealy-mouthed monologue of the corporate/government-colonized newsmedia has been parroting the words of feminists that they ignored for years—deploying a weak brand of pop feminism against the Taliban to keep the war fervor high. And yet, somehow, it seems that the actual women are not being included in the dialogue, and the actual needs facing women in Afghanistan are not being discussed.

What a fucking surprise.