Monday Musing: Terrorism, Free Will and Methods of Comparison

For the last four years, since the attack on September 11, 2001, the political side of the blogosphere has tossed arguments back and forth about cause, free will, and responsibility. I first noticed it in a piece by Hitchens shortly after the attack. September 11th was also the 28th anniversary of the coup d’etat of the Allende government by Pinochet. Hitchens’ invocation of the coup and comparison of the Chilean left with al Qaeda had a simple point. The US had been instrumental in the overthrow of Allende and the massacre of leftists that followed. The Chilean left had a real and deep grievance against the US, yet, we couldn’t possibly imagine Chilean socialists hijacking planes and flying them into the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people. The implication was clear: grievances fueled by the sins of the US just aren’t enough to justify the actions of al Qaeda terrorists.

Nothing really followed in terms of the debate from Hitchens’ piece, even though he’d mentioned it a few times. But the question of the role of grievances (in the form of US foreign policy) in 9/11 picked up and keeps popping up. The debate was extended to discussions of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Al Aqsa Martyr’s brigade terrorism, and a brief but quickly curtailed discussion of the massacre of children at Beslan a year ago. By the time of the bombings in London, the debate had become clarified.

Few, if any, of those engaged in the back and forths were confused about explanation and responsibility. An action or event by victims can causally contribute to an act of terrorism, but what that means for responsibility was at heart of the issue. In terms of the present war, it’s hard to argue that had the US not been involved in Middle East politics—if it did not support Israel, had it not had bases in Saudi Arabia, and had it not been behind placing sanction on Iraq—the acts would’ve taken place anyway. That claim is a causal claim in the “not without which not” way.

Very few responded to any explanation of terrorist attacks by referring to US foreign policy with accusations of being an apologist for terrorism—after all, no one thinks that a scholar of how the Holocaust happened is letting Nazis off the hook. Moreover, the administration itself had implicitly admitted that US foreign policy (support for corrupt governments) had helped fuel extremist movements.

But the debate wasn’t about cause but about “root causes” and what “root causes” meant for responsibility. More sharply, it raised a question about when explanation melds into a justification or apology for terrorism. The issue led to a brief back and forth between Norm Geras (with Eve Gerrard) and Chris Bertram. The former:

“One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped. The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthemore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame. The ‘We told you so’ crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London last week.”

Bertram’s response was simple.

“One of their examples concerns rape. Of course rapists are responsible for what they do, but suppose a university campus with bad lighting has a history of attacks on women and the university authorities can, at minimal cost, greatly improve the night-time illumination but choose not to do so for penny-pinching reasons. Suppose the pattern of assaults continues in the darkened area: do Geras and Garrard really want to say that the university penny-pinchers should not be blamed for what happens subsquently? At all? I think not.”

These discussions were about clarifying intuitions and understanding of cause and responsibility (agency, free will). But it was a spike; discussions continued to be peppered with comparisons with historical examples. Juan Cole in a post had pointed to Israeli occupation as the cause/reason for Palestinian terrorism, a post that drew the following from Jeff Weintraub.

“[I]n 1922-1923 about a million and a half Greeks fled or were expelled from Anatolia (with several hundred thousand Turks and other Muslims ‘exchanged’ in the opposite direction). Most of these people lived in refugee camps for a while, in both Israel and Greece, but I am not aware that they generated terrorist groups with a policy of systematically murdering Arab or Turkish civilians. . . Did these expulsions ‘provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced’? Not that I can recall. . . [I]t is not inevitable, or even common, for large-scale transfers or expulsions of populations (which, unfortunately, have been all too frequent during the past century) to ‘provoke significant terrorism on the part of the displaced’.”

I raise this discussion about terrorism, its causes, and moral responsibility not to jump into it. But it did strike me how an everyday form of Mill’s method of comparison plays itself out in partisan debates. John Stuart Mill spelled out an inductive method of causal reasoning. We infer that for a class or set of instances of phenomena we find a common circumstance or element, we infer that the common element(s) cause the phenomenon. Similarly, if we are facing differing outcomes in which all elements were common save one, we infer that difference is causally relevant to the outcome. These can be joined. They can be measured in degrees, in the sense of the degree to which the common element was present and the outcome covaries with its presence. Get enough causal understandings together (pairing up causes and outcomes, being sophisticated to account for interactions, etc.) and we can generate law-like propositions. While methods of uncovering law have become much more sophisticated, this basic approach remains common in the social science, even though deductive approaches, such as those that are based on rationality, are also very prominent.

Mill proposed this methodology largely to understand natural phenomena and they remain a serious element of how we examine natural phenomenon. Statistical inference is a descendant of this technique. But the social world has been far, far less amenable to the objective that the method was aimed for, uncovering laws, or law-like regularities.

Some time ago, the philosopher Jon Elster argued that the social sciences confront a problem in that the same (social) mechanism can operate in different directions, largely due to differing contexts—but in a situation where we cannot fully specify all the elements of the ‘context’. We are faced with a complex interaction of several mechanisms in way we haven’t fully specified. The social “sciences” don’t quite make the “science” cut for that reason.

The tendency in discussions, especially in political discussions, has been to toss in free will, which is hardly unreasonable. But I’m not sure that comparison will get us there. My belief that the dispossessed have a choice over their response and means of their response doesn’t depend on the information that Anatolian Greeks didn’t blow up civilians. Rather, it depends instead on not being able to see what mechanism would get me there in the narrow comparative case. Add a lot more elements—indoctrination, differing organizational capacity perhaps—then maybe, which has been the response.  But if the debate has reached what feels like a dead end, it may speak more of the kinds of arguments we appeal to.

Happy Monday.