Did you know that terrorism was your fault? Mine too, of course. In fact, if one pays attention to the writings of academic philosophers (always dangerous, I know) one would get the impression that terrorism is everyone’s fault—except for the academic philosophers (and the terrorists, of course). Two examples taken from academic works on the subject are enough to demonstrate how philosophical hubris, resentment against one’s own civilization, and rank, counter-factual prejudice can cause one to believe that the entire world is a hotbed of injustice and justified acts of terror.
Uwe Steinhoff, who teaches politics at the University of Hong Kong, begins his essay on “How can terrorism be justified,” by engaging in the familiar tactic of moral equivalency. How can Americans in particular condemn terrorism stemming from injustices in the Middle East when they ignore the suffering brought by their own policies? Americans kill civilian bystanders in military operations and impose suffering through, for example, sanctions imposed on the regime of Saddam Hussein. Thus, he opines, they have surrendered any right to outrage at the attacks on the World Trade Center. According to Mr. Steinhoff, terrorism in general is the instrument of states like the United States and Israel, which they use to kill far more innocents among oppressed peoples (Arabs and Muslims in particular) than are killed in attacks like that on the World Trade Center. State attacks on the weak, he argues, are more accurately deemed acts of terror in their instrumental violence than are the acts of those who search for meaning, honor, and revenge when taking western lives.
What to do? According to Steinhoff:
If strong states really want to fight sub-national terrorism, then there are only three legitimate and commendable means at their disposal: the rejection of a double moral standard, focused prosecution of crimes (in so far as the committing of a punishable crime—and not of an actual justifiable resistance—may be demonstrated) and, finally, the inclusion of the excluded.
In essence, Mr. Steinhoff is calling for nations subject to terrorism to blame themselves, excuse all terrorist acts save those committed by people whose goals he does not like (the “unjustified” resisters), and fund the usual leftist programs of social welfare and multiculturalism. On this view, we all (or at least westerners) should be good progressives and recognize the justness of terrorists’ resentment, then use the state to eliminate the social conditions causing such violence. There is slightly more, here, in the form of a call for re-examination of the methods used to fight terrorism. And in this “slightly more” one might find valid grounds for changes in policy. We conservatives who for years have sought withdrawal from wars of choice and rejection of the fundamentally radical project of “nation building” often make the same kind of point. But this is only a small and peripheral part of Mr. Steinhoff’s argument, used more to condemn responses to terrorism in general than to spur reconsideration in the particular.
The central, overall purpose of Mr. Steinhoff’s critique is to engage us in consideration of “the excluded” as a group with the right, or at least the justification, to engage in terror. Writing before the Black Lives Matter movement had bullied law enforcement into leaving black neighborhoods at the mercy of local thugs, Mr. Steinhoff suggests that high crime rates in some neighborhoods justify violence against residents of other neighborhoods. How so? As a response to the unjust distribution of police protection. One might point out, here, that police in many of these violent neighborhoods often find themselves victims of local violence, with little or no support or even sympathy from the locals. Then one confronts the counter argument that acts of police racism (including against those of the same race as the officers) is the cause of this lack of support. And so we are off to the social justice races—that is, to the cycle of arguments regarding first causes that ends with progressives rejecting the necessity of order as the first need of all. Instead, we are told (or rather threatened) “no justice, no peace.” We have come, then, to the necessary recipe for mob violence and the explosion of crime now victimizing law-abiding poor people in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. The authorities must give “justice” as defined by the mob, or the mob will burn down its own neighborhood, innocents be damned.
For progressives, the answer to all cultural tensions is indoctrination into various leftist ideologies that define justice as substantive equality and blame “power structures” for social pathologies up to and including murder. Here we enter the academic’s intellectual sweet spot. The world is unjust, you see, and those who are on the receiving end of the goods of life have a duty to make it just, or suffer the consequences of resentment and violence.
This point is spelled out in Ted Honderich’s After the Terror. Mr. Honderich argues, in essence, that we who benefit from the blind luck of being born in wealthy societies are to blame for the poverty of those born elsewhere, and so have no right to claim innocence in the face of terrorism. We are not innocent, according to Mr. Honderich, and so terrorists are not terrorists in any meaningful sense. While definitions of terrorism vary significantly, there is general agreement that it involves violence against innocents. But, if no one is innocent, then there can be no terrorism.
Terrorists often claim that there is moral culpability among their victims. This includes, for terrorists and their apologists, Israelis, who by their presence in Israel occupy Palestinian lands, and American civilians, who benefit from the oppressive policies of their government and businesses. Mr. Honderich goes the terrorists one better, blaming everyone who is better off for the suffering of everyone who is worse off.
Like all too many partisans playing at philosophy, Mr. Honderich begins with the abstraction gambit. That is, he points to a good that is so abstract that no one can rationally deny its validity. In this case the good is life. We all want life—as long a life as possible. Mr. Honderich asserts that even the religious simply want access to a very long, post-mortem life. Wanting life, we also want lives that include the basic goods (chiefly health and material welfare) that us to experience life in some meaningful sense. Well, then, how do we justify the massively unequal distribution of decent lives across the globe? Why do some children die in squalor while others grow up to lead wealthy, pleasant lives? This child-like question can lead to sustained examination of the sources of health, wealth, and human happiness (which may or may not be intimately tied to either health or wealth). Or it can be harnessed as a source of existential resentment—of a rejection of God and a determination to blame the better-off for all the sufferings in the world.
Mr. Honderich goes with option number two.
According to Mr. Honderich, we could have distributed income and wealth more evenly throughout the world and, having failed to do so, are responsible for the unequal distribution that exists. The hypocritical posing involved in this argument has become so widespread that it has lost its ability to shock. But it remains important to point out that an equal distribution of all the wealth and income in the world would leave even an academic philosopher with far less than he currently enjoys. And this means that the first ethical step for one making this argument should be to surrender essentially all his own goods beyond those necessary for bare subsistence—which does not include, for example, books for one’s library. If one is responsible for inequality, one should begin by equalizing oneself for the benefit of the worse off. One might add to this the fact, obvious to all but academics, that one cannot simply transfer wealth and income. Mechanisms are required. These mechanisms are run by human beings with human motivations including greed and the desire for power. Thus, as anyone who takes the time to look will note, the foreign assistance so demanded by progressives is not merely inadequate but has, for decades, empowered self-interested bureaucrats and allowed elites in poor nations to enrich themselves and buy arms and armies to oppress their own people.
One could spend a lifetime going through the errors involved in a call to equalize wealth. They range from the overwhelming empirical evidence that socialist policies impoverish everyone to the equally overwhelming evidence that political control over the means of production and distribution leads to economic enervation, political centralization, and violence. More interesting, I think, is the ideological attitude Mr. Honderich’s presumptions indicate—an attitude at the core of progressivism and the tyranny it spawns.
As Eric Voegelin explained, an ideology is a false reality one imposes on the world to justify one’s own actions. The false reality for leftist academics has become increasingly clear and extreme over the last several decades. It is, at base, that the world is an essentially malleable collection of goods. The duty of those with power is to take the plans of academic leftists and impose them on the shapeless mass that is the world. By choosing the right blueprint—that is, the academic blueprint of a society of equality in all things, with everyone enjoying long, healthy lives—we can reformulate existential reality to make it more just. Because this is so obviously good (“everyone wants this life, and being equally worthy, has an equal right to it”) failure to implement the plan is an evil worthy of punishment. And who fails to implement it? Not just the elites in power, but everyone who supports them.
How, then, do we tell the good from the bad people? If the power structures are so ingrained that the injustice is central to our way of life, who can possibly be virtuous? This is a difficult question to answer. Voting clearly is an important signal of one’s virtue, but so are various other virtue-signals like driving a Prius, making a show of recycling, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, and so on.
The system is so corrupt that it is only those who publicly band together to show their virtue that are exempt from condemnation and subject to justified acts of terror (or disruption of their speeches, firings from various prominent positions, and otherwise being publicly shamed and punished). It is not surprising, given all this, that the actions required of the progressive elect have as much to do with posing as with doing, or that the “doing” is bound up with disruption and even violence. We have seen regimes like this before, from the French Revolutionary Jacobins with their Reign of Terror to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It does not end well—not even for most of the academics. Unfortunately, in order to save our own society we also must save the academic posers and their social-justice warrior-acolytes from themselves. This requires both vigorous public engagement to point out the errors and hypocrisies of their positions and reasoned use of the police power to restore order, including in the neighborhoods where progressivism has, ironically, both done the most damage and taken strongest hold of the minds of the citizens.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.