Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Comment on Greenwald

Ouch.  I admire Glenn Greenwald and don't like writing or posting this.  It is a comment on 3 words in this column.  Please read it before reading my comment.

I think that you are unfair to Klein.  I think your argument is based on a false dichotomy between "indiscriminate" and discriminate.  Klein isn't advocating killing all Pakistani 4 year olds or even killing Pakistani 4 year olds chosen at random.  You assert that he is advocating exactly that.

You do not recognize a distinction between killing, say, only uniformed soldiers of an army which has actually invaded one's country (I think you accept this) and killing people at random.

The claim that deaths are collateral to a legitimate military aim is not an automatic absolution from all alleged culpability.  However, it is also not a completely irrelevant claim as you assert.  

I think I am being totally 100% fair to you.  when you assert that Klein's moral vision is identical to that of terrorists, you assert that there is no difference at all whatsoever between taking the risk that civilians will be killed and deliberately killing civilians.   You assert that the acting with the certainty that the course of action will imply the death of innocent civilians is equivilant to "indiscriminate" killing.  Thus you assert that anyone who allows cars to be driven is a terrorist.   If the only choices are to be a terrorist and to avoid civilian deaths at all cost, then we can do nothing but avoid death.  Airlines are terrorist organizations because one in a million flights ends in a crash.

I have called you (with absolutely no irony whatsoever) the George Orwell of our day.  However, this column is consistent with the assumption that you are a moral idiot.  Did you read what you wrote ? (I ask for information, as I honestly suspect that you didn't (and admit that I plan to post this comment without reading it).  Did you think at all about the  definition of  "indiscriminate" before typing it or before posting ?

I stress that my criticism of this article has nothing to do with drones.  Let me stipulate that current US policy is monstrously criminal.  Under that assumption, I assert that your use of "indiscriminate" and "terrorist" is not at all serious.  It demonstrates contempt for language and logic and morally important distinctions.


Jeffrey Davis said...

Greenwald's comment is fuzzy at the edges because he doesn't limit the scope of his comments to military actions, but he's more correct than you imply. The bombing of Dresden in WW2 was a terrorist action because the British wanted to exact a little revenge for The Blitz and the V-1 and V-2 bombings. By the end of the war, our bombings of Japanese cities had reached that level. Most of our bombing of Hanoi and the farms of N. Vietnam were terrorist. Explicitly so by Kissinger's attempt to make the Vietnamese believe we were crazy.
Simply tacking a military rationale onto an action doesn't bless the action or spare it from moral demands.

Proportionality. The recognition of civilian rights. These have been rendered quaint ideas by the indiscriminate use of drones. And as Scarborough says, this will come to haunt us in the future.

Hans Suter said...

You seem to assume that terrorists are intent to kill "good guys".

Robert said...

Wow 2 comments must be a record.

Dear Hans. My post wasn't clear. Terrorists intend to kill non combatants. Some non combatants are nasty people. Some are actually criminals. Deliberately killing them is terrorism.

Dear Jeffry Davis: I agree entirely that the bombing of Dresden and the Christmas bombings of Hanoi were terrorism. The intent was to kill civilians.

I am old enough to remember the totally bogus claim that B-52 crews were ordered to drop bombs aiming at a military air base in Hanoi. The bombs scattered over a footprint on the order of 1 mile long (I remember hearing the word footprint on TV but not the number). The argument that the bombing was not terrorist was obviously invalid. It was clearly described as plainly nonsense on network TV. It was clearly meant to be obvious nonsense to make sure the terrorist intent was clear to the North Vietnamese government.

That was indiscriminate killing.

The Obama policy is different. There is a difference between violence which can cause collateral civilian deaths and deliberately killing civilians. This is different even if one can be quite sure that at least one of the attacks aimed at military targets will kill at least one civilian.

One can argue if the distinction (which is absolutely totally standard in international law) is morally relevant. However, to call discriminate killing indiscriminate is to write something which is simply false. The difference might not be relevant to the moral law, but I didn't accuse Greenwald of a error in ethics. I accused him of an offence against language.

I think the example of the Christmas bombings of Hanoi illustrate just how non-standard his use of indiscriminate was.

It also shows how Greenwald_English is inferior to standard English. If we adopt his slightly modified language, we put the Christmas bombings and drone attacks in the same category. If one were to think that they are different in a fundamentally important way, one would have great difficulty explaining that view in Greenwald_English.

If one were to think that they are essentially the same, one would have no trouble expressing that view in standard English. Greenwald, for example, could have written "Discriminate killing of civilians who happen to be near legitimate targets is just as immoral as indiscriminate killing of civilians." But he didn't. Instead of keeping two words and saying the distinction is not morally important, he merged the two words. This is not needed for him to express his views. It does have the effect that people who don't challenge his use of language can't contest his view.

You see that Greenwald is, again, making me think of Orwell. But not in the same way as I did in the past (and I trust will again in the future).