Counterpoint: Democracy Doesn’t Mean Collective Responsibility
This is part of The Liberty Papers’ continued Point/Counterpoint feature. Specifically, this Counterpoint is the response to Jeff Molby’s post yesterday suggesting moral equivalency between Arabs cheering in the streets after 9/11 and Americans cheering Sunday night at the killing of Osama bin Laden.
A lot of what Jeff said yesterday made sense. We have been intervening militarily in the Middle East for many decades. I’m not going to give a Rudy Giuliani response and act as if blowback doesn’t exist, nor that his charge that it’s a long line in the “Hatfield-McCoy” ongoing feud between cultures is incorrect. I’ve become a non-interventionist over the years not because I think other countries are behaving well in the world or to their own citizens, but rather because I don’t trust government to actually accomplish what they intend on the world stage.
In short, while I doubt that the long-term safety of Americans from terrorist acts is meaningful affected by the death of Osama bin Laden, I found myself filled with an internal cheer on Sunday night. I’ve never been the type to go jump up and down in a crowd over such things, but I had much of the same motivation in my heart that I believe they do. And I don’t consider the response to be rationalizing away a bad emotion — I believe the emotion is justified. Further, and to the point, I believe the emotion is justified in a way that those in the Middle East cheering after 9/11 cannot claim.
Jeff’s essay contains what I consider to be a fundamental error of collectivization, and it was on that basis only that I worked with him when he submitted his post to make it a Point/Counterpoint. The response is too much for the comments section.
It is never moral to cheer the deaths of innocent people. I think we can all stipulate that Osama bin Laden appears to have full guilt as the mastermind of Al Qaeda for perpetrating 9/11, and that anyone working to continue to keep him hidden in that compound was complicit in the guilt as well. We’re not talking about a collateral damage problem here.
So we’re left answering a question on which Jeff and I disagree:
So were the 9/11 victims innocent?
Lest anyone try to twist my words, let me be absolutely clear that the responsibility for the 9/11 attacks lies entirely with the perpetrators of those attacks. That does not make us innocent bystanders, though. We choose our representatives and give them a ton of money with which to do our bidding. We are responsible for the countless civilian deaths that our government has caused over the decades. You. Me. The 9/11 victims. Every American old enough to work and vote. It takes hundreds of millions people working together to great the largest killing machine the world has ever known. We did it together and most of us were proud of it every step of the way. Many of you are probably furious with me right now because you’re still proud of the weapon we’ve created.
The fact that America is a representative democracy does not make us all complicit in everything our government does. This is true for multiple reasons:
- Electoral party politics are a package deal. One cannot vote for a specific basket of political positions. One must pick and choose which are most important, and every-day domestic concerns will always drive decisions more than abstract foreign policy.
- Jeff mentions that the last President & Congress to NOT engage in foreign war was Hoover. It seems that the non-interventionist position was not exactly on the table.
- One can claim that the non-interventionist position WAS on the table. Yet George W Bush was voted in on a policy that he wasn’t interested in nation-building. Obama was voted in as an ALTERNATIVE to GWB — Hope and Change. Yet he’s doubled down in both Iraq and Afghanistan and embarked on a whole new war in Libya.
- The people who voted for the policies 20, 40, or 60 years ago are not the same voters today.
- Some of victims didn’t vote for the winners, they actually voted *for* the [losing] anti-war candidates, or their candidates won but were outvoted in Congress.
Democracy doesn’t mean that Americans are all the same, nor that we are all complicit in the guilt for a history of Hatfield-McCoyism. Some of those killed on 9/11 were undoubtedly in favor of the military-industrial complex. Many were not. Some were Americans who had voted for politicians embarking on those policies. Many had voted for the losers in each of those elections. Some of those killed on 9/11 were Americans. Many were not — meaning they had no ability to influence American foreign policy.
Americans cheering at the killing of Osama bin Laden were cheering for a specific, concrete act of retribution against someone who was a stated enemy of us as a collective [the Great Satan] and as individuals [infidels]. It would be the same as Muslims cheering at the killing of specific Americans who suggest that we should wipe Mecca off the map because Islam itself as a religion of death. Both are be acts against individuals who had proven their desire to kill high numbers of people.
But that’s the minority. Most Americans and most Muslims are peaceful people trying to make their way through the world, working towards a better life for themselves and their families. At the end of the day the questions aren’t really who to vote for, the questions are how to budget for college and get the kids braces, how to put food on the table and afford the rent or mortgage.
Americans know, for the most part, that they have almost zero control over their government, and act accordingly. While Jeff tries to paint the brush that “the government is us”, Americans have internalized that what “those guys in Washington” do is not exactly “us”. Muslims watch their governments (who they have much less control over than even Americans) oppress the people, and throw up their hands in despair while they try to live. They get tarred with the “Osama bin Laden is a Muslim, therefore all Muslims support terror” brush too often, and I don’t believe it’s much appreciated.
I’m not saying we’re the Bad Guys. I’m just saying we’re not the Good Guys either. We’re simply active participants in a Hatfield-McCoy-esque feud whose root cause is long since forgotten. We’re wrapped up in a nasty affair with enough blood to cover everyone’s hands.
American politicians and the leaders of the Muslim world are engaged in this feud. Regular Americans and Muslims are distant cousins who left the county decades ago and look upon those Hatfields and McCoys with opprobrium. The fact that these politicians were voted into office over the years doesn’t mean a majority of Americans support the specific foreign policy measures that made this a Hatfield/McCoy event, much as the rebels in Libya today are not responsible for Gadhafi’s terrorist attack on American interests 30 years ago. We even see today that there appears to be internal disagreement within Pakistan’s government (the civil government vs. the Pakistani military) over the hiding of bin Laden. It is quite possible that the military or ISI knew of his existence but was keeping it a secret from the rest of the government. Is all of Pakistan responsible for those internal interests that were working to hide Pakistan?
At the end of the day, Arabs who cheered the 9/11 attacks on the WTC were cheering against the deaths of individual innocent people who had no direct relationship to the long history of warfare and strife between the American government and governments/terrorist groups of the Middle East. Americans who cheered for the death of Osama bin Laden were cheering for retribution against someone who was directly involved in planning, funding, and organizing the event that killed innocent people.
To claim that representative democracy makes those situations morally equivalent is a false application of collectivism, and it deserves not to remain unchallenged.