Monday, 30 November 2015

Intentions and the road to hell

The shocking attacks in Paris have brought home to many Westerners the horror of war and the sufferings of similar victims in Syria and Iraq. In this post I would like to reflect on whether there are significant differences between the various acts of mass killing brought about by the war in the Middle East.

I'm sure we can all agree that the degree of personal anguish suffered through the loss of a loved one does not depend on how many others were killed at the same time. Therefore our empathetic response to the bereaved should be the same whether or not the murder occurred in Paris (120 dead) or in the Beirut attack (41 dead) the day before. Nevertheless, judging from the degree of media coverage, the Paris tragedy seems to be regarded as more serious than the Beirut tragedy.

Why do we have such differing reactions to apparently similar events around the world? Well, one response is that perhaps we wouldn't if we saw equally detailed media coverage. In my opinion that is not the the whole story because, to sell their products, the media give us the coverage that is most likely to resonate with their readers - and readers in the West naturally tend to read Western media. So I think that Western readers as a whole do find outrages against their own kind more culpable. No doubt non-Western readers exhibit a similar bias in favour of their own as well.

So, having come to the conclusion that we have a natural bias towards our own culture, let's return to my original question and ask if there are culturally independent differences between acts of mass killing. We can focus on this question more clearly if we consider degrees of culpability.

I suggest that there are two key ingredients about how much culpability we attribute to a crime. The first is not very controversial: we ask how much harm was done. How many lives were lost? What was the value of the property stolen? What physical damage was done? Some types of harm may not be so easy to quantify and we can have different opinions on things like "How much long-term psychic damage was done"; however often the amount of harm can be readily measured. By the way, although we can agree that culpability is proportional to damage it is one of the sadder facts about our society that punishment seems not to be correlated to harm done.

There is a second ingredient of culpability that we take into account: the intentions of the individuals who committed the crime. This can be much more controversial because much of the time the only information we have about the perpetrator's intentions is from the perpetrator himself. However most of us would accept that there is a difference between a deliberate shooting and an accidental gun discharge even if both of them result in a death; so we do accept that intent matters.

It is the job of courts to judge how intentional was the crime of a defendant. However here we are considering acts of violence for which there is no defendant in court. Two notable examples were recently debated by Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky (in an email correspondence in which there was no meeting of minds). They had no trouble agreeing that the intention of the 9/11 attackers was to cause loss of life to civilians (well, they are intellectuals so nothing is certain).

However they disagreed heatedly about the US bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 1998. The bombings caused thousands of Sudanis to die because they were deprived of essential medicines. The Clinton administration claimed the factory was making chemical weapons and it was not their intention to be a mass murderer. Basically Harris is sympathetic to this justification: for him the claimed lack of intention mitigates the crime. Chomsky on the other hand believes that the consequences of such a carefully planned attack must have been plain to the instigators.

This example captures the difficulty about allowing intentions to mitigate culpability. Do we try to discern the personal intention of President Clinton? His team of senior advisers? Or do we try to define the governmental intention? None of these is really possible. There are some philosophers who evaluate actions entirely by their consequences - for them the bombing is condemned despite the aggressors pleading lack of intent to kill. Our present traditions and legal practices are somewhat out of sympathy with such consequential ethics. It would be a brutal legal system that operated by these principles and our more nuanced approach certainly seems preferable at national or local level. But at the international level, where we are judging actions by nation states, consequences are often all we have to go on. That should not prevent us from trying to assess intent but we are often groping in a fog of ignorance.

I hope it is now clear why we find such lack of unanimity even when we make a determined effort to make judgements independently of our cultural bias. But where does that leave us when we formulate our reactions to the next act of killing? I suggest we should condemn with our gut rather than with a measured amount of ferocity that depends on who was the aggressor, how much harm was done, and whether we think the act is calculated. Dead innocents are dead innocents and we should condemn their deaths no matter the circumstances. Following this logic also means that we should condemn reprisals if they include killing innocents. And therefore, inevitably, we shall often find ourselves condemning "our side". Well, so be it.