Paris, ISIL, Evil, Law Enforcement, and War

We stand with Paris.

Like everyone else, I was appalled and saddened by the recent attacks in Paris.*  One of the strange things about modern life is that the news media intimately acquaints us with vivid images of atrocities and suffering even as their geographical distance makes it nearly impossible for us to do anything to help.  We’re human, and when events make an emotional impression on us, we feel the need to act.

After the attacks of 9/11, people around the globe lined up to donate their blood.  Blood banks in America collected an extra 600,000 units of blood after 9/11.  But since blood is a perishing commodity, more than 200,000 units were discarded, unused.

I’m no more immune to this urge than anyone, but I’m cognizant of how the hot surge of emotion can overcome reason, which is why I’m going to try to work out my thoughts about the attacks with as much caution as I can muster.  Hopefully this essay will help people think through these issues as well, rather than being discarded, unused.

The attacks seem obviously evil, but I think it’s useful to examine why they seem so to us.

The first thing is that they involve killing.  It may seem obvious, but death is generally the greatest ill we can encounter in life, and it is permanent and irreversible.  This means that we should strive to avoid taking human life.

Indeed, the basic function of a government is to keep its citizens safe.  We grant the government a monopoly on the legal use of force, and in return, we expect fair treatment and protection.  This is one of the reasons why we react so strongly to police officers who murder innocent people.  It is a violation of the basic prohibition against killing and a breach of the implicit contract with the state.

As a side note, this principle explains why gun control is essential.  Giving citizens unfettered access to guns means giving people the power to kill other people.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust the average citizen with the power of life and death.  I’m not sure I trust any citizen with that power.  Most arguments against gun control boil down to the ability of armed citizens to deter crime.  Yet arming citizens to take on criminals is like swallowing a spider to catch a fly–it might work, but it’s a pretty suboptimal alternative.

Thee second factor that speaks to the evil of the Paris attacks is that they targeted the innocent.  The people killed weren’t criminals, combatants, or even aware of being targeted.  They were simply attending a concert, dining out, or attending a soccer game.

In a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, ISIL said Paris was targeted because of France’s role in the airstrikes against ISIL, and for being a “capital of adultery and vice.”  These two justifications violate two different principles–the first being that military force shouldn’t target innocent civilians, and the second that disagreeing with social mores does not justify violence.  We’ll discuss the issue of war later on in this essay, so I’ll focus on the issue of “morality” in general.

In a world with a multiplicity of philosophies and religions, it’s difficult to talk about morality.  Difficult, but not impossible.  Whether you subscribe to Mills/Bentham utilitarianism, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, or the teachings of Buddhism, the most fundamental right is that of freedom and self-determination.  You don’t have to be an enthusiastic fan of Bitcoin or dream of owning your own island to appreciate the importance of freedom.

Groups and cultures that seek to restrict individual freedom are generally in the wrong.  It is wrong for certain cultures to require women to wear restrictive clothing.  It is wrong for France to bar women from wearing restrictive clothing.  Let people wear what they want, have sex and marry whom they want, and inhale what they want.  It’s none of our business.  If there are externalities like the healthcare costs of alcohol or tobacco usage, tax the heck out of those substances to pay for those externalities.

Sometimes, freedoms come into conflict, as with abortion, where a woman’s right to control her own body conflicts with the rights of the unborn child growing in her body (and those of the father).  Here, we have to decide on what we think is a fair process for making a decision (passing laws, judicial review) and accept that humans and their compromises are imperfect.  If you agree to the process (e.g. by remaining a citizen of the United States), but you don’t abide by the resulting compromise, you’re essentially like a spoiled child on a playground who tries to take his ball and leave.  This doesn’t mean obeying every law, but it does mean accepting the consequences of civil disobedience in service of a cause.

Yet none of these careful nuances matter in the case of the Paris attacks because ISIL plays no role in the laws and behaviors of French citizens!  Using deadly force to punish the people of another nation for behaviors that have no impact on your own life is both meddlesome and foolish.  Any group or culture that believes in taking such action is irrational and evil on the face of it.

Law Enforcement and War

Given the evil of the Paris attacks, the question is, how should one respond?  The French government responded with airstrikes on ISIL’s “capital” (more on this later) after President Hollande called the attacks “an act of war.”

A key part of any such response is to decide if your actions are law enforcement or war.

Law enforcement consists of the state taking action to apprehend criminals and put an end to their crimes against individual citizens.

War consists of the state taking action against an enemy that represents a threat to the state.

Law enforcement officers should avoid the use of deadly force unless there is no alternative.

War is predicated on the use of deadly force, and assumes that diplomatic alternatives have been exhausted.

Given that ISIL claimed state-level responsibility for the Paris attacks, I think the French government has the right to consider it an act of war.  Yet the process of defending against such attacks has far more in common with law enforcement than war.  Terrorists aren’t like armies massing on your border; they are hard to detect and often hide inside your own population.  Even the world’s most powerful military struggles with nation building, as the US military has found at great cost over the fast 14 years.

The other problem with war is what is euphemistically called “collateral damage,” because it sounds better than “innocent people killed in the process of trying to get the bad guys.”  The desire for vengeance is deeply human and instinctive, but airstrikes are likely to kill innocent civilians, most of whom probably hate living under ISIL rule.

The reality of war is that lots of innocent civilians die.  The question is whether the alternative is worse.  During World War 2, the Allies didn’t bomb the Nazi concentration camps.  Doing so would have killed innocent prisoners.  But doing so might also have prevented many deaths.

If President Hollande and other world leaders decide to invoke the concept of war, I hope they commit themselves to their chosen course of action and have the fortitude to see it through.  ISIL has done a remarkable job of making enemies of nearly all of the surrounding states in the Middle East, the United States, Europe, and Russia.  This gamble will pay off if ISIL’s enemies content themselves to minor moves and overheated rhetoric; the resulting morass will let ISIL congratulate itself for standing up to “corrupt Western powers” and help it recruit more fighters.  I hope it turns out to be a bad gamble.

What You Can Do

On the one hand, I know that changing a Facebook profile photo is a small gesture.  On the other hand, millions of small gestures add up.  Each time someone sees a tricolored profile photo, they feel a sense of collective purpose.  I don’t see anything wrong with that.

In addition, I think that one of the best things we can do in the coming days is to stay calm and try to act with patience and reason.  One of the great things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  One of the awful things about democracy is that it generally reflects the will of the people.  ISIL is an evil force that we need to fight.  But we need to fight in a smart, disciplined, effective way.

* There is an entirely different discussion that we could have about why attacks in Paris have a global impact, while similar attacks in Beirut, and worse atrocities perpetrated by the likes of Boko Haram attract little comment or outrage in the Western world.  I suspect that the reasons are a combination of affinity and shock.  Affinity in the sense that most Americans identify more with Paris (especially those who have visited it) than Beirut, let alone Nigeria (this is part cultural and yes, part unintentional racism), shock in the sense that Paris is generally thought of a safe, cosmopolitan city, far from war and suffering.  Perhaps I’ll take up this subject at greater length another time.

3 thoughts on “Paris, ISIL, Evil, Law Enforcement, and War

  1. Anonymous

    Couldn't agree with you more. Times like these are dangerous because mob-like, emotional decisions can be made, which often surrender our independent thinking to a centralized power that makes strategic decisions for us. (Check out Edward Bernays.)

    This is an interesting concept: "We grant the government a monopoly on the legal use of force, and in return, we expect fair treatment and protection. This is one of the reasons why we react so strongly to police officers who murder innocent people…. A key part of any such response is to decide if your actions are law enforcement or war."

    I agree with the first part, but I think we're playing by new rules today—rules that undermine nationstates and blur the line between law enforcement and war (think William Gibson's Neuromancer) because we live in a corporate feudalism. Because only a few control corporations, and corporations have a sufficient influence on governments, our social contract with governments needs to change. How does that affect our response to terrorist attacks? Or does that even make sense? Would love your thoughts.

  2. Nate, thanks for stopping by!

    My feeling is that the nation-state still makes sense as an organizing unit. What is needed then, are consistent transnational standards that individual nation-states can apply. Things like GAAP and the Basel norms seem to have successfully played this role in the financial world. Of course, the system is imperfect, and individual nation-states can and do ignore these standards when they deem it inconvenient. But I think this imperfection is acceptable in contrast the practical alternatives.

  3. Your thoughts are well defined and I admire that. But I agree with the first comment we cannot control the terrorists attacks. It's for the government to do something about it.

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