Tag Archives: Julian Assange

Night thoughts on vigilantism

Suppose that you’re the American media, and you’re trying to make sense of the recent mass murder and attempted assassination in Arizona. There are many simple ways that you can try to come to terms with the event. And since you’re the American media, you are going to treat the process of explanation as if it were as easy as doing a multiple choice test. So the murders happened because a) Jared Loughner is crazy; or they happened because b) America’s crazy; or, c) We don’t know one way or another. Using the pencil provided, pick one (1) option that best fits your answer.

You can predict which answers people will give by asking them their party affiliation and political ideology. Partisan Democrats will point to SarahPAC‘s crosshairs. Ideological democrats will tend to be skeptical that we can tell a simple causal story that will explain these seemingly unexplainable acts. And Republicans will say: he was mentally incompetent, and had nothing to do with the right-wing regime.

Me? — I’d have a hard time filling out my Scantron sheet. Based on the evidence, it’s reasonable to think that Loughner is not mentally competent. But I don’t know if the alleged assassin is mentally competent — that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to find out. And I don’t know if the climate of hostility is responsible for the actions of someone who is not mentally competent, because I don’t know how you go about holding a culture responsible for anything. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of violence and vigilante justice didn’t help cause it.

That’s option d): all of the above.

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While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance. So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.

I can hear some of you gentle readers bristling at one of these premises. You might think that it is very bold for someone to say, “so-and-so self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence”. Like Jon Stewart, you might shudder at any suggestion that there is a causal connection between the culture of vigilantism and Loughner’s attack.

But you have no right to bristle. There’s no reasonable doubt that their explicit intent is to legitimize violence against civilians. Consider these opinions about the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:

“I’d like to ask a simple question: Why isn’t Julian Assange dead? …Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago? It’s a serious question.” Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.”Sarah Palin

“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list.”G Gordon Liddy, former Nixon advisor and ex-felon

And so on. That is their vision of justice. As a corporate whole, they think they’re The Punisher. The vanguard believes in do-it-yourself homicide, not law and order or due process. Vigilantism is a lynchpin of the Tea Party ethos.

Notice: I am not saying that the case of Julian Assange is identical to that of Gabrielle Giffords. Nor do I bring it up in order to suggest that Loughner was directly influenced by the right-wing vanguard — presumably, he has never met Palin in person, for instance. My point is that you can’t underestimate the causal role of a climate of violence. You might absolve the vanguard of responsibility for crimes committed by irrational actors — but you can hold the vanguard accountable for bringing about the culture.

vanguard1

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To see what I’m arguing against, consider Brandon’s recent post (at the philosophy blog Siris). Brandon rightly calls for moderation and temperance by saying:

In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin’s crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin’s). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group… All these are rather elementary examples, and don’t require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research.

(Note: this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection.)

The quoted paragraph includes a red herring. For, the way I see it, the “climate of violence” argument doesn’t depend on us knowing anything about Loughner’s “link” to Sarah Palin. A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.

I find it puzzling that Brandon seems to want more evidence before we can offer responsible explanations on the basis of what we have. Our explanations will, of course, be revisable and tentative. And just because we say that the Tea Party helped cause these events, doesn’t mean we’re entitled to lay the blame on particular people. But we can sure blame particular people — the vanguard — for making the culture in the first place.

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There is another possible objection. You might say that, even if the climate of violence played some role in Loughner’s crime, it would still not be Palin’s fault for producing that culture of violence. The idea is that there is some analogy between Palin’s role in the Tucson murders and Marilyn Manson’s role in the murders at Columbine. In the next post,  Some time soon, I’m going to show you how this analogy is completely off base.

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The Ethics of the DDoS Protest

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Image via Wikipedia

One consequence of WikiLeaks leak is that it has been cut off from its main sources of acquiring money. Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal have all stopped doing business with WikilLeaks. WikiLeak’s bank, PostFinance, has also stopped doing business with the organization.

In response a group of “hackers” known as “Anonymous” have launched Operation Payback. This operation involves launching Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on the web sites of the companies in question.

Put a bit roughly, DDoS attacks work by overwhelming a site with traffic so that the site is greatly slowed or even forced to shut down. To use a somewhat inaccurate analogy, it is like crowding the entrance to a business so that customers cannot get in. While relatively simple, these attacks are hard to counter because each attempt at access seems like a legitimate site visit.

One factor that makes this DD0S attack stand out is that it is supposed to be a political protest. According to Anonymous, they are “actively campaigning for the free flow of information” and to be “against anyone who supports censorship, such as those who are responsible for the silencing of WikiLeaks.” For its part, a WikiLeaks spokesperson say that “We neither condemn nor applaud these attacks. We believe they’re a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that the campaign is actually an act of protest and not merely an act of mischief using WikiLeaks as an excuse. I will now turn to the ethics of the matter.

When considering any protest, regardless of the means employed, a primary question is whether the protest is morally justified or not. If a protest is not morally justified and it does some harm to those who are targeted by the protest, then the protest would seem to be morally wrong. For example, suppose some students failed their classes because they partied all semester rather than doing work in their classes. In response, suppose they decided to “protest” by breaking the handles to the professors’ offices door and those of the classrooms in which they taught on the first day of classes the next semester.

While the students might be angry over their grades, the professor did not wrong them. As such, they have no grounds for protest and their “protest” merely causes unjustified harm to the professor, the university and also to other students.

Now, suppose that a professor maliciously failed students in a philosophy class because he disagree with their criticism of his philosophical views. In that case, the students would seem to have legitimate grounds for a protest against the professor.

Turning back to the actual situation, that of the alleged abandonment of WikiLeaks, the question is whether the companies in question have acted wrongly and thus morally deserve to be subject to acts of protest.

As noted above, Anonymous seems to be claiming that the protest is justified because these companies support censorship and are taken to have a role in silencing WikiLeaks. It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that those campaigning for the free flow of information remain anonymous (they obviously see the value in not allowing some information to flow freely) and that they protest by cutting people off from information. However, the key concern here is whether these companies have acted wrongly in a way that justifies this protest.

On the face of it, refusing to do business with WikiLeaks does not seem to be an act of censorship. After all, they are not actually censoring WikiLeaks-they are merely refusing to do business with them. It might be argued that cutting off these sources of funding silences WikiLeaks. In reply, while funding does help, web hosting is actually fairly cheap (or even free). WikiLeaks could, for example, start a free WordPress blog or pay around $10 a month for a site. As such, the lack of PayPal and such would be inconvenient but not silencing.

It could be argued that while the financial companies are not literally silencing WikiLeaks, they are acting unfairly by refusing to do business with them. Whether this is true or not depends partially on whether WikiLeaks has actually broken the rules set by these companies in their terms of service. Of course, the terms of service for some of these companies would seem to be fairly “open”: MasterCard and Visa both do business with the KKK. However, if WikiLeaks violated the terms, then the companies would seem to have a legitimate right to terminate their relationship. If, however, the companies are merely cutting off WikiLeaks because of political pressure, then that would be another matter.

Thus, whether there is an injustice to protest here or not seems to be, amazingly enough, a matter of controversy.

A second major factor is the means of protest. As a general principle, the means of the protest should be morally proportional to the offense. After all, if a protest is worse than what it is protesting against, then the ethics of the situations would shift.

In the case of Operation Payback, the protest is to use DDoS attacks to choke web sites, thus denying people access to that information. These attacks do not actually expose financial data. To use an analogy, this “hacking” is not like someone breaking into your bank. Rather, it is somewhat like someone blocking your access to the teller.

One thing that morally distinguishes Operation Payback from other DDoS attacks is that these attacks have typically involved recruiting peoples’ PCs involuntarily via malware (thus creating what is known as a zombie army). The current DDoS attack is supposed to be voluntary-people are apparently downloading and installing software to launch the attacks.  This is morally important since hijacking peoples’ PCs and their bandwidth to protest would hardly be an ethical thing to do. It would be rather like tricking people into protesting or stealing from them to make protest signs. Since the protest is voluntary, this aspect seems to be morally acceptable. As such, the main point of moral concern is whether the attacks themselves are morally acceptable.

On the face of it, the DDoS protest does seem morally comparable to “real world” protests that involve blocking entrances to businesses and other organizations (like the sit ins at schools). While these protests do inconvenience and annoy people trying to gain access, they do not seem to do significant harm. In fact, Anonymous announced that it would not attempt to attack Amazon because doing so would be harmful to consumers and inconsistent with their desire to protest rather than inflict ham.  As such, this sort of DDoS protest does seem to have the potential to be morally acceptable.

Of course, arguments against sit-in/blocking style protests would apply to the DDoS protests. As I see it, the assessment would involve weighing the weight of the misdeed(s) that sparked the protest against the harms being done to those protested against and those impacted by the protest. Do, if the DDoS attacks are proportional to the alleged misdeeds of the companies, then the protests would be acceptable. If not, then they would be unacceptable.

Since the ethics of WikiLeaks is still a matter of debate, I do not have a definite answer at this point.

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Of Heroes and Leaks

The town of Berkeley recently considered a motion to declare Private Manning a hero. Manning is, of course, accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. While some see him as an obvious villain and other see him as an obvious hero, this is a matter worthy of some consideration.

The first point of concern is to provide a rough idea of what it is to be a hero. While I do not purport to be giving a necessary and sufficient definition of what it is to be a hero, I think that there are two core requirements.

The first is that a person must put herself at significant risk. Since risk comes in degrees is would thus seem to follow that there are degrees of heroism. This is intuitively plausible. For example, if I merely risk a minor injury, then I am only being (at most) somewhat heroic. If, however, I run a considerable risk of being horribly killed, then my potential heroism would seem far more significant.

Obviously enough, putting oneself at risk is not sufficient for heroism. After all, if a person drinks several Four Loko and runs out into traffic, he is putting himself at risk. However, he is not being heroic. This leads to the second core requirement.

The second requirement is the moral element. An act of heroism is, intuitively, an act that aims at a moral good. We would not, for example, call someone who undertook considerable risk to commit a murder or rape a hero.

As with the risk, the goodness can come in varying degrees. So, for example, if someone risks an injury by climbing a tree to rescue a cat, then she is being a little bit heroic. As another example, Ginger Littleton acted to try to save the lives of her fellow school board members which would make her rather heroic.

Naturally, there are all sorts of other factors that must be taken into account when assessing specific acts for heroism. For example, there is the matter of whether the person acted knowingly. As another example, there is the question of intent. However, I do not want to become bogged down on these details at this point (I’ll leave that up to commentators) and will now switch to the main issue or whether Manning is a hero or not.

Since it has yet to be proven that Manning leaked the information, the discussion of his heroism (or lack thereof) is hypothetical. For the sake of the discussion, it will be assumed that he did leak the information. However, this is not to be taken as a claim that he did, in fact, leak the information.

Manning’s alleged leak does meet the first condition. Such a leak brings with it considerable risk (such as the possibility of an extended amount of jail time) and presumably Manning was aware of these consequences. However, the critical requirement is the moral requirement.

While Assange seems to regard himself on a moral crusade, it is not entirely clear what motivated Manning nor what Manning hoped to achieve with the leak. There has been some speculation that he leaked the information because of his dislike of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. If so, it could perhaps be argued that his leak was a moral protest against what he regarded as an immoral policy.

However, the information about Manning seems to indicate that he was unhappy about his job for various other reasons. As such, his leak might have been a case of a disgruntled worked who aimed at getting back at his employer. This is hardly an act of heroism.

The above is, of course, speculation. At this point it is not certain what motivated Manning nor what he hoped to accomplish with the alleged leak. As such, there seems to be little solid evidence of heroism.

In cases in which the potential hero’s intent and aims are not known, it does make sense to try to assess the action itself as well as the consequences. For example, if someone rescues a drowning person from a frozen lake, then we are inclined to call her a hero-even if she slips away without revealing anything about her motivations or aims. As another example, if someone secretly steals your wallet/purse while you are out shopping, then you would probably not be inclined to regard that person as a hero.

The ethics of the leak is, of course, a matter of great contention. Some people hold it to be an act of wickedness, on par with 9/11. Others hold it to be a morally upstanding act that strikes a blow against the evil of America in specific and states in general. Those who assess the matter more with reason than emotions generally seem to hold the leak to have caused some problems in diplomacy but to be neither a great good nor a significant evil.  As such, there does not seem to be  clear case for Manning being a great hero (or an epic villain).

At this point, the most likely narrative is that Manning leaked the information because of his dissatisfaction with his situation. The leak itself does not seem to have done significant good nor very significant damage. As such, it would seem that Manning is not a hero.

There are, of course, alternative narratives. Some that paint him as a hero and others that cast him as a traitor.

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