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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The people who voted for the policies 20, 40, or 60 years ago are not the same voters today.
  5. 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.

  • Mandamus

    Sophistry. So you can sleep at night.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Mandamus,

    What’s your point? That the 9/11 victims weren’t innocent? Or that cheering for the death of someone who is an outspoken and avowed enemy and who has essentially taken credit for killing innocent people is morally equivalent to cheering for the deaths of innocents?

    Note that very few Americans *cheer for* collateral damage. Many view it as a sad consequence of war, but don’t actively cheer for it. Those who cheered for the deaths at the WTC on 9/11, however, *were* cheering for the deaths of non-combatants.

    You can make the claim that since we’re a democracy, there’s no such thing as a non-combatant, but I believe that to be a flawed argument for all the reasons I stated above.

  • Mandamus

    you live in and benefit the system. Even though you say that you don’t approve and it’s not being done in your name, it actually is.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Really? I didn’t know that the definition of being an American included original sin.

    I suppose all the northern abolitionists were responsible for slavery as well, right?

  • http://www.simplifylunch.com Jeff Molby

    Note that very few Americans *cheer for* collateral damage. Many view it as a sad consequence of war, but don’t actively cheer for it. Those who cheered for the deaths at the WTC on 9/11, however, *were* cheering for the deaths of non-combatants.

    I think those cheering on 9/11 would argue that they were cheering for the strategic damage — which happened to be economic and psychological in nature since they obviously can’t win a pitched battle — that they had inflicted upon their enemy. With such a perspective in mind, they would argue that the deaths of the non-combatants were “sad consequence of war.”

    You can make the claim that since we’re a democracy, there’s no such thing as a non-combatant, but I believe that to be a flawed argument for all the reasons I stated above.

    I’ll address the “democratic combatant” argument later, but there’s another aspect to my original argument that I must have inadvertently edited out. We’re responsible for our government’s actions not only because we vote for the actors, but also because we fund their actions. Our enemies can rationalize any large industry as “part of our war machine” in the same way one would rationalize an attack on fuel refineries. If there was ever any doubt about it, the economic turmoil of the last few years has demonstrated that complex financial services are an important part of our economy and thus, our ability to fund and wage war. Thus, it could easily be argued that employees of financial services firms give “material support” to our war efforts.

    Again, I’d like to make it very clear, before some idiot says otherwise, that I don’t condone ANY of the violence. I just find it ludicrous that we assume we civilians aren’t part of the war effort. In fact, it reminds me a lot of how the British were flabbergasted when we sniped at officers and ambushed supply chains during the revolution. “That was not how ‘gentlemen’ fought, damnit!” As if there’s a “gentlemanly” way to kill masses of men!

    Bottom line: American bombs would not be dropping on other countries on such a regular basis were it not for the ideological and financial support that the American public gives both implicitly and explicitly for such attacks. How can we honestly be outraged when our puny enemies decide it makes more sense to attack the lion from behind rather than charging right into its fangs??

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Jeff & Brad:

    Thanks to both of you for writing such a thought provoking Point/Counterpoint. These issues you are debating raise some very good moral, ethical, and philosophical questions that go way beyond the jovial response by many Americans in response to the killing of Bin Laden.

    The most basic question: to what extent are we responsible for the actions of our governments? (examples: How responsible were the German people for the Holocaust?)

    That question leads me to yet another: are people who democratically elect their governments somehow more responsible for the actions of their governments?

    As Americans, many of us are very inconsistent on these questions. I’ve heard argued that there really were no innocent people killed in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the Japanese people “fully and actively supported” their emperor (I have no idea how these people know how exactly each and every Japanese person felt about their emperor). Yet when it comes to the misdeeds and even outright atrocities of our government (past and present), many “patriotic” Americans rationalize (“Those Indians were nomadic anyway; they didn’t really want to keep their land or become part of our culture.”) and call anyone who would question these actions as “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” (“If you don’t like America, why don’t you move to Iran” or some such nonsense). And how dare anyone even make a suggestion that 9/11 may have somehow been a result of U.S. foreign policy in any way.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Jeff,

    I think those cheering on 9/11 would argue that they were cheering for the strategic damage — which happened to be economic and psychological in nature since they obviously can’t win a pitched battle — that they had inflicted upon their enemy. With such a perspective in mind, they would argue that the deaths of the non-combatants were “sad consequence of war.”

    I can see a point if you consider OBL and the WTC to both be “symbolic” targets in a wider struggle. That perhaps the destruction of the WTC was the primary goal as a psychological blow against America.

    But I still think that the result is a dangerous and inappropriate collectivization of guilt.

    Bottom line: American bombs would not be dropping on other countries on such a regular basis were it not for the ideological and financial support that the American public gives both implicitly and explicitly for such attacks. How can we honestly be outraged when our puny enemies decide it makes more sense to attack the lion from behind rather than charging right into its fangs??

    Understood. And asymmetric warfare — as a tactic — makes sense when you’re a poorly-financed ideological group fighting a far superior war machine. But we’re not talking about the validity of the tactic here, we’re talking about whether regular citizens cheering OBL’s death are morally equivalent to regular citizens cheering non-combatants’ death.

    But again, the “implicit support” we give is merely living in a nation because it makes sense for reasons COMPLETELY UNRELATED to our foreign policy, and paying taxes because they’ll throw us in jail if we don’t. To say that I’m complicit in support for our shitty government merely because I haven’t moved somewhere else with a shitty government is logically invalid.

    Where would I move? Canada? Last I checked, they’re fighting in the Middle East. Britain? Last I checked, so are they. Australia? They’ve been part of the coalition over time. Not to mention that all three countries have domestic policies that I also highly disagree with. And also not to mention that moving to one of those countries would force me likely to choose between remaining married and living in the same country as my children, because my wife is emotionally tied to her family here. Believe me, if the choice is between the government of the country I live in bombing a foreign country and me pissing off my wife, I know which one hurts me more!

  • http://forum.trianglefreeforum.com/index.php John

    Trying to avoid sounding like a Truther, but I’ve seen nothing in the record that indicates that obl did anything other than giggle like a school boy when the towers fell.

  • Akston

    ABC aired this clip a few days ago. I think the case is pretty conclusive (though it will never be brought to trial of course).

    Also, there’s this. :)

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    John,

    If I was wrongly suspected by the entire world for masterminding an attack that killed multiple thousand people, had the world’s greatest superpower declare me their #1 target, and had to hide out for nearly 10 years with the worry that a Predator drone or a Navy SEAL would end my time on earth, I think I’d be working very hard to protest my innocence.

    That OBL never once denounced his accused involvement in the attacks tells me one of two things:

    1) That he was responsible and he wanted the world to believe he was responsible.
    2) That he wasn’t responsible but he wanted the prestige in the jihadi world that would come with credit for the attack.

    If it was the latter, well, that’s a pretty f’ing dangerous bluff, and SEAL Team 6 called him on it.

  • procopius

    Either way, he was killed and not taken alive. We’ll never know what he or anyone representing him will have to say in any judicial venue.

    And to just kill him, that took 10 years.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/ Stephen Littau

    Procopius, you and I both know he would have never stood trial if taken alive; at least not in a traditional criminal court. Most likely would have been some sort of military tribunal with a guilty until proven innocent standard of proof. Of course this would all be done out of public view (it occurred to me yesterday why certain people in government don’t want these top al Qaeda people tried in NYC: discovery. They aren’t worried about a NYC jury finding these people guilty, what they are worried about is some of the more unsavory details of U.S. interventionism being revealed to the American public during cross examination).

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