After the Terror

TED HONDERICH is Great Britain’s outstanding progressive philosopher, recently interviewed for CounterPunch by Paul de Rooij. One of his past books was Punishment, The Supposed Justifications. Another was the funny and deadly examination of a political tradition, Conservatism, and a third Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy. His new book is After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press). After the Terror has not, in the words of the philosopher David Hume, fallen dead-born from the press, failed even to excite a murmur among the zealots. On the contrary, Oxfam Great Britain publicly refused to accept a donation of £5,000 in royalties from it. The charity Medical Aid for Palestinians did take the money, and said why. What follows here is some of the sequence of argument in the book.

This is an inquiry in which you are asked to participate. It is an inquiry into ourselves and terrorism and what to do, brought on by the shock of September 11, when all with television sets were present for the killing. There was also an aftershock. It was quietly said around the world that the Americans had it coming. They would have to learn and change, grow up. It was said that it was the treatment of the Palestinians by the Jews in Palestine and also the ones in New York and Washington that was the cause. It would have been better to mention more of us than just Americans and Jews.

Inquiry is needed, moral inquiry, near to moral philosophy. This is not the only kind of slow and careful thinking that is needed. Books of relevant politics and economics are needed, and of the records of governments, and of history and international relations, and books by good journalists. But these kinds of books lead towards general moral inquiry, or presuppose it, or bluff about it, or take it to be easy, or try to do it on the wing.

There are questions about right and wrong in general, about our responsibility for what has gone wrong in the world, and about what really is to be said of the wrongfulness of September 11, and about our own moral relationship to that day, and about what came afterwards, and about what is to be done now.

For a start, think of a good life. A good life is one that goes on long enough. A short life may be good while it lasts, may be a sweet thing in the memory of others. But if it is only half the length it should have been, if it is cut down to that, it is not a good life. A good life might be as long as one you know that comes back to mind, maybe like the life of my father, who departed during his afternoon nap. It might be seventy-five years.

A good life also involves other great goods. One of these is a general quality of life that can be secured by, and more or less defined by, the possession of familiar material means. It is bodily well-being tied to the material means. Some of these are a private place to live, ways of alleviating pain, more and different food than is necessary to sustain life. A place to sit, maybe a cushion. Something to drink other than water.

In addition to this bodily well-being, there are four other great goods to which living longer is also a means — four by my way of counting. One, whether or not more important than the others to follow, or more important than bodily well-being, has to do with freedom and power of various kinds, to which can be added safety. There is also respect and self-respect, and private and public relationships with others, and the satisfactions of culture, including religion and diversion.

Bad lives, to come to them, are lives lacking the great goods or some of them. The definition of bad lives is of course a matter not only of discovery but also decision.

In particular, consider the worst-off tenth of population in the four African countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Zambia. They do not have average lifetimes of about 80 years, like the best-off tenth in America. They have average lifetimes of about 30 years. We could have changed that. The loss of living-time because we did not try is immense.

To shorten lives or leave lives short is not the same as to kill. It is not like killing. We know that before we begin to think more about it. It is still true that the living-time lost to the innocent people under consideration is such as to make all deaths by terror-ism, considered only in terms of living-time lost, insignificant. This is not a congenial idea, but it is an idea that some parties to a real inquiry will take to be relevant. They may take it to be more relevant than anything else. They will say they are not flies.

They will say it too when someone gets more parti-cular and argues, rightly, that there is solid evidence to show we could have lengthened the lives in question by just five years — and draws the conclusion that there was a loss of living-time of 20 million years. Do you say that this is unreal? Crazy stuff? It would be good to know what you mean. Certainly the conclusion is hard to face. But how could it be mistaken to think of it?

This inquiry you are in can have its essential basis in such well-established general facts. They bring to mind our possible omissions before our positive acts — omissions, whether right or wrong, rather than commissions. But we also need to give some attention to another possible basis for judge-ment — the commissions. These, the main or only concern of other strong lines of inquiry, have to be kept in mind by us.

In 1900 there were 500,000 Arabs and only 50,000 Jews in Palestine. Many of the latter had arrived as a result of the Zionist struggle for a homeland begun shortly before. This movement was the result of anti-Semitism, hostility to and prejudice against Jews, a unique history of contempt, envy, and persecution.

The destruction of European Jews by Hitler and the Germans during the Second World War did not issue, as in justice it ought to have, in a Jewish state carved out of Germany. It eventually issued, rather, in the United Nations rightly resolving on a certain partition of Palestine, to the detriment of the Arabs.

There were 749,000 Arabs and 9,250 Jews in what would become the Arab state if the partition went ahead. There were 497,000 Arabs and 498,000 Jews in what would be the Jewish state.

Such numbers, like the 1900 ones and also others, overwhelm and submerge familiar controversy about who did what in what year in terms of massacres, negotiations and the like. The Palestinians have been violated. They are right to look back to Germany in World War Two and say they are the Jews of the Jews.

Lives are bad if they are cut short — half-lives, quarter-lives and still shorter lives. So are lives bad that are long enough but have in them no significant amount of the material goods that make for bodily well-being. Lives are bad, to take another example, if they lack the great satisfaction of freedom, power and safety in a homeland. This is the main fact in the case of the Palestinians.

How should we think about our omissions and commissions? Our omissions with Africa and our commission which is our support of Zionist Israel? We should think of these things by way of a morality of humanity, fellow-feeling, or generosity. It has in it one funda-mental principle. This principle of humanity is that what we need to do morally is to try to save people from bad lives — this is the stuff of our moral obligations and rights.

You will want some details. OK, the principle is that the right thing to do is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational thing with respect to the end or goal of saving people from bad lives. The rational thing, in this sense, is of course the one that probably will be effective with respect to the goal and also economical as against self-defeating — it will not give rise to more bad lives than it ends or prevents.

One argument for it has to do with the fact that each of us wants things, and has reasons for having them. This is fundamental to the fact and practice of our natural morality. Other people can take over our reason for their own use. We can resist them by offering further reasons, making distinctions. My prospect of hunger, I say, is in this or that way to be accorded an importance larger than yours. I am different in this special way — on account of my entitlements or whatever.

These new reasons, if they do remain within morality, have the ring of selfishness about them. The principle of humanity or fellow-feeling does not. Nor do the reasons derived from it. That is its strength. You can try to take it to depend as well on certain seeming truths of fact at the bottom of morality.

Are you still uncertain that our omissions are wrong?

Well, we take it that to omit to do something, with a certain effect, may not be wrong even if acting with that effect or something like it would be wrong. There is a difference between letting die and killing, much used in medical ethics. There is a difference between a doctor just letting the patient’s pneumonia take its course and his giving the patient a fatal injection.

There is a difference too, we assume, between not donating to Oxfam for famine relief and doing something else — a certain positive act. That would be a leader’s ordering his armed forces to stop the food convoys getting through to starving people for a while, maybe with an idea, unspoken and unspeakable, of putting indirect or moral or political pressure on the other side. We take it there would be a difference between not donating for famine relief and giving the order, even if the effect in the two cases would be much the same. Is there really a difference of fact between what we call acts and omis-sions? More important, is there really a difference such that the omissions are not wrong, or not so wrong as the related acts are or would be?

There is no such difference, as you can come to see. If killing someone would be wrong, and an omission would have the very same effect, then surely the omission remains just as wrong. It remains as wrong even if we are not interested in the omission and are interested in something else in the causal circumstance for the couple of deaths. Maybe that what I do in omitting to contribute to Oxfam also gets me a holiday in Venice.

Isn’t the same true — the omission remains as wrong — if it serves some interest or purpose or desire of ours to concentrate on some-thing other than the omission? A murder doesn’t become right because it’s really in my interest. Certainly it doesn’t follow from the fact that something is good for me, or good for a majority, or good for Americans, or rather some Americans, that it is right.

Ask some other questions too if you want. Might it be that one person’s omissions aren’t seriously wrong because one person doing better would hardly help at all — just be a drop in an empty bucket? What about looking out for our own children? Is your guide in this inquiry not serious, because he is only writing a book? Is he a hypocrite?

Well, a German railwayman looking at the boxcars with people in them might have made himself more comfortable in 1943 by asking such ques-tions after he had the thought that he ought to be doing something — against the genocide of the Jews and the Gypsies and the Poles and the Communists and the rest. He ought to have been doing something, however.

Forget a philosopher’s half-technical stuff about acts and omissions if you want. You’re left with the plain fact that we could have done otherwise and we didn’t, and that this had awful effects. A loss of 20 million yeas of living time. You can wonder if different moral philosophy about relationship and special obligations and so on is humanly necessary apologetics, a humanly necessary diversion from the facts. It can still be guff, though.

There remain other things to think about.

To be on an airliner and look around and see the people and be able to stick to the plan of flying it into a skyscraper is to be hideous, and to persist if they come to know the plan is to be monstrous. Nothing can be thought that will take away from such judgements. What else can be said will not reduce them. The terms “hideous” and “monstrous” by their use in connection with the killers of September 11, are recalled from metaphor and loose talk to original meanings having to do with being repulsive and being inhuman.

But you can know a thing is wrong and not know why, anyway clearly.

There seems little doubt that we were affected by the attack on the Twin Towers partly because, whatever its rationale in the minds of the attackers, it was an attack on a democracy. Certainly this fact was much heard of from our democratic leaders. In so doing they were not only being politicians speaking for their own line of life, but engaging in a general kind of thinking that can be reasonable enough.

If you start thinking about our democracy, though, you get to the fact that the interest-groups in it in terms of wealth and income are not equal, or more or less equal. They are not approximately equal, as I used to say myself. They are not half-equal, or anything like equal. That is an abuse of language that is a falsehood. What they are, if you stick to the English language as we have it, is absolutely unequal. As a result, to come to the conclusion, democracies are misunderstood in the standard enlightened idea of them. The form of govern-ment we actually have is hierarchic democracy. The kind of society we have is hierarchic democracy. There is also a lot more to be said about it.

The killers of September 11 are con-demned more clearly and explicitly by nothing other than the morality of humanity. The killers are not best condemned as a kind of deduction from un-certain principles, principles at a certain height above life, as in the case of liberalism and other social moralities. They are condemned by the principle of humanity, that we are to save people from bad lives. They are condemned by a main policy of this humanity, a prohibition on wounding, attack, killing and other violence and near-violence. This condemnation is not qualified by the policy’s not being simple, as the condemnation of killing in entirely conventional morality is not qualified by that condemnation not being simple.

It is not unthinking, either, in supposing that it is possible to do the right thing without struggling to come to the best judgement as to the probable effects of an action or line of action. There can be no sustainable principle that lifts us out of the world, out of the need to try to see what will or would happen in it. Any morality that made things simple would be wrong. We know things are not simple.

The second wrong mentioned a moment ago, that of the killers at the Twin Towers, was in some way owed to the first, our omissions with the bad lives. Their wrong was in a way owed to ours. Certainly that does not absolve them. It is indeed a certainty that two wrongs do not make a right.

But, to be plainer, the atrocity at the Twin Towers did have a human necessary condition in what pre-ceded it: our deadly treatment of those outside our circle of comfort, those with the bad lives. Without that deadly treatment by us, the atrocity at the Twin Towers would not have happened. Our omissions were a necessary context for the particular intentions on the part of the killers having to do with Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Whether or not it can be qualified, it is hard to see how the im-plicit conclusion can be avoided. It is that we were partly respon-sible and can be held partly responsible for the 3,000 deaths at the Twin Towers and at the Pentagon. We are rightly to be held responsible along with the killers. We share in the guilt. Those who con-demn us have reason to do so. Did we bring the killing at the Twin Towers on ourselves? Did we have it coming? Did we ask for it? Those offen-sive questions, and their offensive answers yes, do contain a truth. We did play a part, our politicians at our head.

For the 3,000 deaths there are lines of responsibility into the past, as real as chains of command, containing earlier and later perpe-trators. We in our democracies are in them, and in particular those of us who have got themselves into our governments. We are there with those who aided the killers and with Osama bin Laden. We have to escape the long illusion that those of us who are ordinary are innocent.

If bombing Afghanistan, to come to that, could be taken as likely to lessen the chance of more Islamic attacks on us, it could not conceivably be our only right response to September 11. In all of life, from bedrooms and kitchens to hemi-spheres of the globe, we learn of the distress of others, after words have failed to teach us, from their actions, or from actions by others on their behalf. We learned or could have learned something from the attack on the Twin Towers. Or, we did or could have realized something more fully. We could have come to an actual realization of our actual responsibility for the bad lives, and also for that same attack of September 11.

We were required by September 11, in my view, to see ourselves and reform ourselves. More than that, a confession was called for, and a resolution of change. Are you so worldly as to suppose talk of confession is unrealistic and a matter of religion at best? I have a sense of your possible reasons, but I do not agree. Confession is possi-ble. Countries and peoples have confessed before now. Germany did. There is also confession to oneself, in private. A people can do it. It is something important for the future rather than the past.

There are still a few questions.

The principle of humanity, being serious and arguable, does not give an automatic verdict on all terrorism. It is a principle that takes account of the world in its differences. It struggles with facts and probabilities, with the difficulty of rationality. To my mind, still, it does issue in one conclusion of a certain generality, this being about liberation-terrorism, terrorism to get freedom and power for a people when it is clear that nothing else will get it for them.

I have no serious doubt, to take the outstanding case, that the Palestinians have exercised a moral right in their terrorism against the Israelis. They have had a moral right to terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves. This seems to me a terrible truth, a truth that overcomes what we must remember about all terror-ism, and also overcomes the thought of hideousness and monstrosity.

I myself have nearly run out of steam in this inquiry, but not quite.

There are two things about all of us on this earth. One is that we all have desires and needs. In my book, they are desires and needs for the six great goods. The second thing is that we’re not all ninnies. Hardly any of us are, in fact. We can see through things. Those with the bad lives, to speak just of them, can see through the shams of our morality. They can see what we have done to them and what we are doing to them. So our question of what to do, and also their question of what to do — neither of these will ever go away.

What are we to do? Leaving aside the question of particular means, there is a question of a general means, a general resolution. It cannot possibly be that our policy should be the exporting of our hierarchic democracy and our capitalism as we have them. On the contrary, we need to try to raise up our societies. Our societies as they are, if you will put up with some last plain speaking, are ignorant, stupid, selfish, managed and deceived for gain, self-deceived, and deadly.

What we need more than anything is a kind of intelligence. Moral intelligence. What we all need above all from Americans, on account of their power, is moral intelligence. We and they should see the need for escape from a lot of junk, a lot of morality with too many distinctions in it. We and they need to see how bad things are, and, in particular, how much they are owed to those of us on top.

Suppose you make it to one of those cocktail parties that some of us dream about, with famous people at it. You are about to meet the man who may still be spoken of by the International Herald Tribune as Mr bin Laden, maybe back from the dead. You are also about to meet my Prime Minister, Mr Blair, who has just agreed to do something about the state of our National Health Service, or Africa or the world, five years after he was elected. You shouldn’t shake hands with Mr bin Laden. You could think about keeping your hand in your pocket with Mr Blair too.

TED HONDERICH’s account of the Oxfam affair is at