It’s no real reason

Let us just take this issue of Iraq and expose it for a moment – frankly, the obscenity of these people saying it is concern for Iraq that drives them to terrorism. If it is concern for Iraq, why are they driving a car bomb into the middle of a group of children and killing them? Why are they every day in Iraq trying to kill people whose only desire is for their country to become a democracy? Why are they trying to kill people in Afghanistan? Why are they trying, every time Israel and Palestine look as if they could come together in some sort of settlement, they go and wreck it. … They will always have a reason and I am not saying that any of these things don’t affect their warped reasoning and warped logic as to what they do, or that they don’t use these things to try and recruit people. But I do say we shouldn’t compromise with it. I am not saying anyone says any of these things justify it, but we shouldn’t even allow them the vestige of an excuse for what they do.

What is happening in Iraq is that ordinary, decent Iraqis are being butchered by these people with the same terrorist ideology that is killing people in different parts of the world. … there is all the difference in the world in us taking action against these terrorists and as will happen when military action is taken innocent civilians get killed. We deeply regret every one of those lives. They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose. And all the instability in Iraq would stop tomorrow if these terrorists and insurgents stopped. … Until we get rid of this frankly complete nonsense in trying to build some equivalence between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it, until we eliminate that we are not going to confront this ideology in the way it needs to be confronted and my point to you is this, it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but we kind of see something in their ideas or maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.

we will start to beat this when we stand up and confront the ideology of this evil. Not just the methods but the ideas. When we actually have people going into the communities here in this country and elsewhere and saying I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense about it is to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.- Blair, 26th July 2005.

If nothing else, Blair is commendably clear. The terrorist threat to Britain – “this evil” – is the work of a single identifiable group, operating in Palestine as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Their programme is unclear and may be incomprehensible (“warped reasoning and warped logic”). Their “terrorist ideology” leads them to kill at random and “rejoice” in “the loss of innocent, civilian life”. Their claim of solidarity with the people of Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Palestine) is contradicted by their own actions, as they repeatedly undermine democratic progress in those countries; by implication, progress will now only be possible after they have been defeated. What they do has no justification: “it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but … maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.” The Iraq war, in particular, is not a justification, because the war is right and what they are doing is wrong: there is no comparison “between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it”. In fact, the suggestion that the Iraq war is a justification is itself part of “the ideology of this evil”, and must be rejected if the terrorists are to be defeated: “It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.”

In order to make sense of this stuff, I think we need some definitions. First of all, it would be correct to say that the Iraq war didn’t cause the London bombings, if only because actions don’t have causes: they aren’t precipitated by facts about the world. Actions have agents: people who make decisions and carry them out. Behind every action there’s a choice – and people who are responsible for making that choice and acting on it.

What actions do have is motives, which are closely related to beliefs: how you want the world to change cannot be divorced from how you believe the world currently is. Political actions, in particular, are generally capable of being justified (if not necessarily in ways you or I would accept). That is, their motive is a desire to change the world – to change the distribution of resources, of power over resources, of power wielded by some humans over others – and to change it in the direction of greater justice, as the agent sees it. In this sense, the motive of a political action is also the basis of its justification. It should perhaps be emphasised that saying that an action can be justified is not the same as saying that it can be justified in terms that I would accept. A justification which is framed in terms of beliefs and motives I don’t share won’t get my endorsement – but I can, and should, still recognise that it is a justification. You can learn why somebody thinks something is a good idea without being persuaded that it is a good idea.

Of course, actions also have intrinsic qualities; some actions, in particular, are intrinsically repugnant. Indeed, some actions – such as, for instance, the murder of random passers-by – are corrosive of any imaginable society; our sense of repugnance in these cases has a fairly good claim to universality. That said, we know that there are – and always have been – people willing to carry out repugnant actions; if this were not the case there would be no need for laws against them. Nor is it the case that any identifiable social group or political cause has a monopoly of ethically repugnant tactics; again, if this were the case we could simply legislate against the repugnant minority and dispense with the law among ourselves. As I argued back here, repugnance is not political; it only becomes a political stance when it is brought into dialogue with our own beliefs, our assessment of how the world is and how the world needs to be changed.

we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and… what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?

(Am I saying I don’t oppose every imaginable suicide bombing? Yes, I am. More to the point, I’m saying that actual suicide bombings – repugnant as they unquestionably are – don’t invariably revolt me in exactly the same way and to exactly the same degree. I expect that this is also true of you.)

Actions, in any case, don’t have causes: every action is the product of a free choice, taken within the context of a framework of beliefs and motives. It is not precipitated by the facts of the situation within which it is taken. It is bound up with those facts, however, in two ways. Firstly, some choices are freer than others: for some agents, the effective range of choices for which they can take responsibility is very narrow indeed. If we were to watch a hundred vagrants in temporary accommodation and a hundred Eton schoolchildren for a month, it’s a safe bet that more thefts would be committed by the vagrants than the toffs, despite the fact that each individual had free will throughout the period. Nor is this a question of justification or extenuation. I’m more likely to steal if my family is starving; I’m also more likely to steal if I don’t know where my next fix is coming from, or if I’ve committed murder and gone on the run. In any of these cases, the facts of the situation constrain my exercise of free choice. The situation – and the chain of causality which brought it about – does not produce my behaviour, but it does make certain choices more likely than others. As somebody once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (It’s since been established that women do something similar.)

Secondly, if freely-chosen actions do not have causes, they do have consequences: typically, consequences which ramify in multiple directions, not all of which can be identified beforehand. If agents are responsible for their actions, they must surely also be responsible for the consequences of those actions – including the constraints which are placed, as a result, on other individuals’ freedom to choose. We might make an exception for consequences which, in principle, could not be foreseen by the agent, however well-informed and reflective they were – but it is difficult to imagine how the consequences of an action could meet this criterion and still be identifiable as consequences.

Circumstances do not cause actions – but they can make certain actions more likely, by validating some beliefs and motives (e.g. “you’ve got to be hard if you’re going to survive”) while undercutting others (e.g. “it’s wrong to steal”). By extension, every action also makes other actions more and less likely. And, of course, circumstances – and hence the consequences of actions – can also affect beliefs and motives more directly, by appearing to demonstrate what the world is like and how it needs to be changed. The changed balance of opportunities and constraints which an action produces, as well as the sets of beliefs which it is likely to confirm or challenge, must play into how we perceive that action.

In the case of the Iraq war, the invasion clearly created opportunities for terrorist activity and removed constraints against it. It also tended to confirm beliefs according to which Western nations – the US and Britain in particular – are engaged in a lawless and predatory ‘crusade’ against the Islamic world. Regardless of whether these beliefs are sustainable or fallacious, they are widely held. The perception that the Iraq war bore out these beliefs – irrespective of whether that is sustainable – is also widespread. As such, it seems beyond question that the foreseeable consequences of the war – as well as the deposition of Saddam Hussein – include an aggravated sense of grievance among Muslims against the British and US governments, and the exposure of Britain to a higher risk of terrorism.

There are three main answers to this line of argument. The first and weakest appears in Geras’s polemic against ‘apologists’:

If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house.

This simply begs the question. Retaliatory violence cannot be justified because it is disproportionate – but it is disproportionate because that’s how the example has been set up. Assuming that we’re still talking about Iraq, compare London and Falluja, or the career prospects of a Republican Guard with those of a British intelligence officer: it’s not immediately clear to me that we are the ones whose house has been burned down. In any case, if Mabel were a friend of mine, I’d tell her to be careful not to cross Zack again and ask her what the hell she was doing stealing the bike in the first place.

The second and third arguments, which also appear in Geras’s piece, are fuzzily invoked by Blair. One is that, while the Iraq war may have created grievances, those grievances are wrong (only the enemies of democracy can oppose the new democratic Iraq). The other is that those grievances are irrelevant (even without the war, “this evil” would still have existed and Britain would have been one of its targets). Geras offers handy thought-experiments for these as well. Firstly, the grievance which can be disregarded because it is wrong:

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

Once again, this is a heavily-loaded example: rape is one of the few crimes which (within the cultural context shared by Geras and myself) cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever, so there is no imaginable scenario in which Elaine would be culpable. A better example might be the socially-conservative Muslim areas – such as present-day Basra – where women who walk the streets with their hair uncovered risk abuse or assault. This treatment appals me, and I side unreservedly with the women who suffer it against the evil sexist scumbags who perpetrate it – but, as with my light-fingered friend Mabel, I can easily imagine asking someone who persistently defied the scumbags whether she wasn’t, to some extent, bringing hostile attention down on herself.

Geras’s use of the word ‘blame’ here is both significant and misleading, I think. Elsewhere in the same piece he argues that, if the Iraq war was ‘right’, then

no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’

This, it seems to me, imposes an artificial distinction between the war and its consequences, assuming that the war is justified whatever its consequences may ultimately be. It seems far more appropriate to assess the consequences of the war and judge its ‘rightness’ or not accordingly. Similarly, if we cause outrage and offence by challenging a world view which we regard as deeply unjust, it is hard not to say that we are in the right – and, by extension, it is hard to say that we can be ‘blamed’ for causing offence. Nevertheless, we might prefer – if only for the sake of a quiet life – not to outrage and offend those people any more than we have to. Of course, we could – and Blair sometimes seems to think that we should – make a virtue of offence and tackle “the ideology of this evil” head-on, wherever it can be found. However, this is a rather more ambitious – not to say open-ended – version of ‘ethical foreign policy’ than we have been accustomed to; never mind Iran, we’d be lucky to escape without declaring war on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The other argument, also invoked by Blair, is that any grievances roused by the war are irrelevant. Geras again:

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

What this tells me is, primarily, how difficult it is to construct a really good thought-experiment. I have never been punched in the mouth, I’m happy to say. I did, however, once go to Spain with a friend; after travelling together for a week or so we split up in Madrid one morning, both agreeing it was best, and returned home separately. We hadn’t come to blows, but we parted on very bad terms. The immediate cause of our separation was an acrimonious argument about the lyrics of the songs “Tangled up in blue” and “If you see her, say hello”. (Twenty years later, I’m absurdly gratified to find, courtesy of bobdylan.com, that I was right! Ha!)

So it seems to me that, in the right circumstances, “I love the music of Bob Dylan” could be a grossly provocative statement. Moving away from one-line utterances, to think in terms of actions and their consequences, makes it harder to come up with a definitively ‘innocent’ intervention. Confining ourselves to political interventions – attempts to alter the balance of power or the distribution of resources, favouring one group or another – makes it harder still. (And confining ourselves to the category of political interventions known as ‘wars of invasion’… but enough already.) True, jihadist terrorism didn’t start with Iraq; its motivations range from the religious deficiencies of the house of Saud to the existence of Spanish rule over Andalusia. But the war has created – and continues to create – grievances which can be channelled into support for the jihadist world-view.

To borrow a bit of sociological jargon, it’s a question of frame-bridging: gaining adherents to one set of beliefs (or ‘frames’) by stressing how much they have in common with another set. Blair seems to realise that some such process is going on, although he doesn’t seem to realise (or admit) that taking Britain into the Iraq war made it eminently foreseeable. More to the point, he doesn’t show much sign of realising that the best way to counter frame-bridging is to do it yourself. You certainly don’t deal with it by telling everyone responsible to stop it at once (“I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense”). If there is anything that people need to be “going into the communities” and saying, it’s more along the lines of “Yeah, sure, Britain needs to get out of Iraq – but restore the Caliphate, are you crazy? And blowing people up – that’s just sick.”

I don’t know if anything like that is happening right now, but I hope it is. I think it’s our best hope for peace and reconciliation. If it’s not happening – if the government and its friends are succeeding in their attempt to equate opposition to the war with support for terrorism, opposition to the jihadists with support for New Labour – then I’m afraid that things can only get even worse.

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3 Comments

  1. Syd Webb
    Posted 28 July 2005 at 09:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Actions have agents: people who make decisions and carry them out. Behind every action there’s a choice – and people who are responsible for making that choice and acting on it.

    A tightly reasoned piece, Phil.

  2. Charlie Whitaker
    Posted 28 July 2005 at 15:25 | Permalink | Reply

    If we were to watch a hundred vagrants in temporary accommodation and a hundred Eton schoolchildren for a month, it’s a safe bet that more thefts would be committed by the vagrants than the toffs …

    Um, you should see some Eton boys at first hand before you make that bet.

  3. CCR
    Posted 29 July 2005 at 23:29 | Permalink | Reply

    I few (though long) critical thoughts – ignore as you so wish…

    (1) Blair is commendably clear. The terrorist threat to Britain – “this evil” – is the work of a single identifiable group, operating in Palestine as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

    That’s twisting Blair’s position. He implies no organisational unity between different self-styled Islamist terrorist groups. All he asserts is an ideological continuity between them.

    (2) Blair: “Why are they every day in Iraq trying to kill people whose only desire is for their country to become a democracy?”

    You seem very mealy-mouthed about this. Millions risked their lives to vote in the February elections, and your attitude seems to be… complete indifference. On your realpolitik position, only the bombers are to be engaged with in ‘frame-building’ exercises. Which leads me onto…

    (3) socially-conservative Muslim areas – such as present-day Basra – where women who walk the streets with their hair uncovered risk abuse or assault. This treatment appals me, and I side unreservedly with the women who suffer it against the evil sexist scumbags who perpetrate it

    I would assume Blair concurs with you here. Because he is a centrist liberal, presumably he would rationalise it by saying that such a situation goes against the principles of the rule of law. Now, when Blair talks of ‘democracy’, he basically means periodic representative elections + rule of law; and this is a conception he would very much like mainstream Iraqi politicians in a decade’s time to adhere to. But this is a vision of Iraqi democracy to be won: conceiveably, those future mainstream Iraqi politicians will uphold (say) some sort of electoral poltics + militia-enforced sharia law. Keep British troops in Iraq for as long as the elected Iraqi government wants them there, and good faith is maintained. Pull them out prematurely, and Blair and his conception of democracy look a mixture of the hypocritical and the anemic.

    (4) we could – and Blair sometimes seems to think that we should – make a virtue of offence and tackle “the ideology of this evil” head-on, wherever it can be found. However, this is a rather more ambitious – not to say open-ended – version of ‘ethical foreign policy’ than we have been accustomed to; never mind Iran, we’d be lucky to escape without declaring war on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

    Rubbish. Blair’s position has been to commit British troops when the concrete opportunity has independently arisen to either prevent slaughter (Kosovo, Sierra Leone) or topple a tyrannical regime (Iraq). Where the configuration of circumstances has been different, a different policy has been pursued – cf. regarding Libya, for example.

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