Apologies for my having been away for longer than I’d expected. Normal service now resumes. My thanks for the many comments appended to my post disclaiming any possibility of my concluding the Iraq war was a mistake – I hope to post in the next few days a reply to the criticisms.
Among the things I have noted in the past few days is the identity of the Chump of the Week (indeed this or any other week). His name is Rupert Read, and he signs himself as Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Last Sunday he had a letter published in the Telegraph:
I was sorry to read the spiteful and misinformed attack on the late Sir Peter Ustinov by my one-time ally (in our student-politics days), Stephen Pollard (Comment, Apr 4).
Mr Pollard appears to think that stringing together a bunch of misleading attacks on Ustinov (eg Mr Pollard repeats the laughable canard that Ustinov's opposition to the Bush-Blair attack on Iraq constitutes his having been a supporter of the barbaric Saddam regime) will make him appear to be a radical and contrarian "intellectual". On the contrary, Ustinov had far the better claim to having been an intellectual.
One of his greatest ever quips was on the eve of the Iraq misadventure when he said: "War is the terrorism of the rich; terrorism is the war of the poor." If Mr Pollard ever produces a sentence as important, true and elegant as that, I will happily work with him again. Sadly, I'm not holding my breath.
If that’s what counts as important, true and elegant, than I’ll settle for banality, falsehood and gracelessness – anything, in fact, so long as no one mistook the sentiment for one of mine. By contrast, Dr Read was so smugly impressed with the aphorism that he cited it again two days later in a letter to The Independent, evidently not having had, on this subject at least, a critical thought in his head in the interim.
If you contend that war is terrorism then you are eliding the distinction between the indiscriminate violence (as between military and civilian targets) characteristic of terrorism and the limited warfare, attempting to avoid civilian casualties, practised in Iraq by Coalition forces. You can argue that that distinction is otiose anyway (though that’s not a view I hold), but to avoid mentioning it altogether is to overlook one of the most influential principles in moral reflection on warfare in western philosophy, namely the Thomist principle of double effect. Targeting civilians in warfare is morally wrong, but warfare that causes civilian deaths is not necessarily wrong where those deaths are an unintended and secondary consequence of an attack on a military target. Whether it is or not depends on other criteria applied in particular cases. I would expect an academic philosopher to be willing to engage in that discussion, or alternatively indicate the nature of his disagreement with that type of moral reasoning, rather than assume the question away.
Conversely, Dr Read’s contention that it is true and important to describe terrorism as the weapon of the poor demonstrates an undoubted capacity for imagination. The instigator of the attack on the World Trade Center is (or at least certain human remains in the Tora Bora mountains are those of) the scion of a billionaire Saudi construction dynasty. What animates Osama bin Laden’s movement is not poverty but ideology: a pitiless and fanatical commitment to kill those it regards as infidels, including all Americans and all Jews.
To point this out is, of course, to have no effect at all. Prejudices are durable, and there is none more so than the conceit that terrorist attacks on the citizens of western democracies must have some [cliché alert] root cause attributable to us. Here, taken almost at random, is yet another example of a dogmatic assertion of a speculative hypothesis presented as self-evident truth: it’s a statement issued by the President of the Methodist Conference, Rev. Dr Neil Richardson, immediately after the Madrid bombings:
The perpetrators of the Madrid bombings, and their particular motivations, have not yet been identified. But what is incontestable is that global terrorism, of which Spain is the most recent victim, is bred by injustice and deprivation. Western nations, therefore, need critically to examine their foreign policy.
It is certainly not incontestable. I have linked before to a study by the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and his Czech collaborator Jitka Maleckova, published the US National Bureau of Economic Research, on precisely this question, and do so again now because of its importance and originality. The paper, entitled Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? is available here for a small fee; a non-technical summary is available here. Finally, a non-technical version of the paper, published in The New Republic, can be read for free here.
Krueger and Maleckova’s research is not easy to reconcile with what the President of the Methodist Conference believes to be incontestable. I quote from the summary.
The core of the study entails a comparison of the characteristics of members of Hezbollah (or Party of God), which the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization, with those of the general population of Lebanon. Their analysis indicates that members of Hezbollah's militant wing who were killed in action in the 1980s and early 1990s were at least as likely to come from economically advantaged families and have a relatively high level of education as they were to come from impoverished families without educational opportunities.
The authors, being economists, make no claims about the relevance of their research for matters of politics. But they do make an important point about the potential economic damage of assuming a causal link between poverty and terrorism where none exists. Again, this is from the summary:
The authors are concerned that drawing a connection between poverty and terrorism - if it is not justified - is potentially quite dangerous because the international community may lose interest in providing support to developing nations when the imminent threat of terrorism recedes. That support, they note, waned in the aftermath of the Cold War. Connecting foreign aid with terrorism also risks the possibility of humiliating many in less developed countries, who are implicitly told they only receive foreign aid to prevent them from committing acts of terror. Further, premising aid on the threat of terrorism could create perverse incentives for some groups to engage in terrorism to increase their prospect of receiving aid. "Alleviating poverty is reason enough to pressure economically advanced countries to provide more aid than they are currently giving," Krueger and Maleckova write.
Those who follow debates on economic policy in the US will know Professor Krueger’s earlier highly influential work on the economics of the minimum wage. In a book entitled Myth and Measurement he and his collaborator David Card argued that increases in the minimum wage had not had the adverse effect on employment traditionally hypothesised in economic theory. I make no comment here on that debate; I cite it merely to indicate that Krueger’s approach is empirical: he looks at data, and he is expert in handling them. I have no idea whether Professor Krueger is an admirer of the wisdom of Peter Ustinov, but I suspect that someone of his cast of mind is liable to be a lot less susceptible than Dr Rupert Read to nonsense dressed up as profundity.
UPDATE: A correspondent alerts me to Rupert Read's UEA web site, which includes an article he submitted to a Quaker publication under the title ARE WE TAKING OUR PEACE TESTIMONY SERIOUSLY IF WE DO NOT TAKE NON-HUMAN ANIMALS’ SUFFERING SERIOUSLY? As you can probably tell from the capital letters, the question is rhetorical:
Jenny writes that we can take the issues of animal cruelty and factory farming seriously, while continuing to eat animals. Well maybe. But let me ask you this: could you take the issue of cruel treatment of concentration camp inmates seriously, while continuing to buy shoes made out of human skin?I don't usually link to things without commenting on them, but in this case I don't know what to say.