Monday, June 4, 2012

Terrorism and Playing the Game

What is terrorism?

In the dictionary sense, perhaps "the use of violence and threats to intimidate and coerce, usually for political purposes." Another definition might be the use of violence to create an atmosphere of fear to further political goals. The argument over a precise definition continues. But in this post I don't want to talk about what kind of act can be labelled terrorism, but about what other labels can given to acts which have been labelled terrorism.

Please now imagine a historical act which you believe to be an act of terrorism.

What you saw in your mind was probably the consequences of terrorism, the scene after the act was complete, painted with emotional reactions as well as visual: pain, loss, anguish, fear, anger. Perhaps there was dust, or smoke, or fire, or only a human being now dead when previously they were alive. What is important is the emotional response.

It is quite possible you were imagining the September Eleven attacks upon the United States, which I will be using as my chief example. What I wish to argue from this example is that one of the main reasons why you find terrorism objectionable is not the death or destruction but the fact that the terrorist does not play by the rules. I mean by this the rules of safety: if you join the armed forces you may die in warfare, but ordinary citizens do not die in war. The fact that this has been true of only a handful of conflicts very recently in history in very specific circumstances does not diminish the fact that it is the rule in which people believe. And it is a very pleasant belief.

One reason for the strong emotional response which terrorists elicit is that they do not play by the rules. Acts of terrorism show that the accepted rules are not rules at all. They are temporary conventions which are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Ordinary citizens often die in war. And what is more, they often die in wars which have not been declared by their own side, or even by the other side - there may not even be a readily identifiable 'other side' at all. The conflict which causes death may be entirely incomprehensible, even to a careful observer.

This is not because terrorists are playing a different game to armies. In fact, they are playing the same game. They are pursuing political goals through violence. What they are doing is examining the state of the game and doing what seems most effective to them. They simply reject the fleeting convention which you embrace. You are the scrub: the player - or component of a player - whose ability to play the game is limited before you ever consider what your opening move should be.

Terrorists, in other words, acknowledge no automatic or inherent restraints on what constitutes legitimate violence. Terrorism makes you tremble - in fear, anger, grief, confusion - because it reminds you that even the moral restraints which seem obvious and mandatory to you are in fact personal to you. The natural tendency of humanity is not towards good but towards evil. Nowhere is this more clearly shown to you than in the willingness of people - of brothers and sisters and parents and lovers and poets and students - to kill other people they have never met and cannot possibly hate in any individual or comprehensible sense. All of this in pursuit of an atmosphere of trauma and fear in order that certain political goals might, possibly, maybe, be furthered.

All this is not monstrous. It is as human as any act of love. And the reminder of this, the upsetting of the rules for not only warfare but your understanding of humanity, is what disquiets you so about terrorism.

Injustice and Suffering

H L Mencken, whom I respect in the same way that a woodcutter respects the tallest eucalypt in the land, once said that "injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice." And this is very true. I don't mean in the physical sense. A year in jail is not any shorter if you are innocent or longer if you are guilty. A slap does not hurt more if you really made that offensive joke, or less if some other person made the joke but slipped off before the target turned around.

What I am talking about is the ability to endure the suffering: to fix your attention on something beyond it. This is straightforward (though certainly not easy) in the case of injustice. The person suffering injustice, if they know that it is unjust, can see that it should not affect their view of themselves. The authority which dispenses unjust suffering has proven itself no authority at all and its opinion of you can be safely ignored. Almost all suffering is considered by Australian society to be unjust and therefore uninformative - it shows you nothing about the world or yourself.

If you take this point of view then you learn very little from looking at the world. Consider what is humorously called the justice system. Even the energy of a great many dedicated people can do no more than make this system less unjust than the usual chaos of the world. Any decision of a court will contain injustice because it will not be perfectly just. In the case of murder, what would be perfectly just would be to restore the dead to life, perhaps by using some portion of the killer's life force. This is quite impossible.

Instead the usual decision is for the killer to be deprived not of some of their time alive, or some of their capacity to enjoy life, but of their ability to dwell with society while living. How curious. If you want someone to realise that killing is wrong, depriving them of liberty and joy is an odd way to go about it. Many people have preferred death to captivity, and a murderer sent to prison might easily decide that they did their victim a favour in booting them off such a constrained and twisted mortal coil. I am not saying that I know a better decision for the court to make, or that there is one (though I hope there is). I am saying that the manifest injustice of the world should cause a thirst for true justice. But because this injustice is seen as uninformative it is not really processed by society or by the individual.

And because it is not processed by the individual, it is more difficult to endure. It is more difficult to fix your eyes on something beyond the present suffering when there is no reason for the suffering to ever end, because there was no reason for it to begin. Unjust suffering is a trumpet played (badly) at random in the night: you do not know why it began, and you do not know when it will end, so you do not know whether you should simply plug your ears for a few moments or find and admonish the trumpeter.

A Christian, if they are aware of their own sin, has no such trouble. A Christian knows that they are a sinner and that they deserve suffering - an eternity of suffering. I am not saying that there is a causal connection between an individual's sin in this world and their suffering. It is transparently obvious that that is not a general principle. But a Christian knows that sin in general is what caused and continues to cause suffering in general, and that the one cannot be abolished unless the other is as well.

And since a Christian knows that through faith in Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, their sin has been taken away, they can fix their eyes on the day when Jesus will return and abolish further sin and further suffering. Being a Christian does not shield you from suffering. But it gives you the knowledge that suffering in this world is justice, nor injustice; and being justice, it is purposeful; and being purposeful, it will end when its usefulness is at an end. When Jesus returns the usefulness of suffering will come to an end. I can fix my eyes on that while I suffer.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Virtue and Vice

When I did Intro to Philosophy at university, the moral system which appealed to me the most was virtue ethics: the idea that you should make decisions that exemplify the various virtues. Recently I was thinking about virtue theory again, and about how it seems much less wholesome only eighteen months later.

The virtues as patterns of behaviour - love, loyalty, courage, and so on - are not in themselves good. Virtues must be directed towards good objects to be good. Love of something which does not deserve or return love may be in some ways good, but it will not produce good. Loyalty to an untrustworthy or wicked cause can be the source of great evil. In fact, these classical virtues are integral to the functioning of systems of evil. No systematic evil larger than the basic conspiracy can perpetrate evil without virtues being involved. Criminal organisations are built upon fear, but also loyalty and trust. War, just or unjust, requires vast depths of courage, loyalty and love on the part of the aggressor as well as the defender.

Cultivating virtues does not create a good individual. It is the prevailing attitude - at least in Australia - that a person who does good things is a good person. You would never think of saying "That Felicity, she's brave and loving and courageous - and evil!" Not seriously, at any rate. But the truth is that virtuous people can do terrible things because of their virtues rather than despite them. People may be intelligent and loving and courageous, and quite wrong. Evil is not the absence of virtue but the absence of a worthy object.

I take comfort in the unquestionable worth of the object of my virtues, Jesus Christ. I am loving and faithful and courageous in service to him - in fact, I model my practice of those virtues upon his. Humanity was created to be virtuous, and to exercise those virtues in the magnification of God's glory. Fulfilling that purpose is the ultimate, and only, good.