Tag Archives: NATO

Ransoms & Hostages

1979 Associated Press photograph showing hosta...

While some countries will pay ransoms to free hostages, the United States has a public policy of not doing this. Thanks to ISIS, the issue of whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists groups or not has returned to the spotlight.

One reason to not pay a ransom for hostages is a matter of principle. This principle could be that bad behavior should not be rewarded or that hostage taking should be punished (or both).

One of the best arguments against paying ransoms for hostages is both a practical and a utilitarian moral argument. The gist of the argument is that paying ransoms gives hostage takers an incentive to take hostages. This incentive will mean that more people will be taken hostage. The cost of not paying is, of course, the possibility that the hostage takers will harm or kill their initial hostages. However, the argument goes, if hostage takers realize that they will not be paid a ransom, they will not have an incentive to take more hostages. This will, presumably, reduce the chances that the hostage takers will take hostages. The calculation is, of course, that the harm done to the existing hostages will be outweighed by the benefits of not having people taken hostage in the future.

This argument assumes, obviously enough, that the hostage takers are primarily motivated by the ransom payment. If they are taking hostages primarily for other reasons, such as for status, to make a statement or to get media attention, then not paying them a ransom will not significantly reduce their incentive to take hostages. This leads to a second reason to not pay ransoms.

In addition to the incentive argument, there is also the funding argument. While a terrorist group might have reasons other than money to take hostages, they certainly benefit from getting such ransoms. The money they receive can be used to fund additional operations, such as taking more hostages. Obviously enough, if ransoms are not paid, then such groups do lose this avenue of funding which can impact their operations. Since paying a ransom would be funding terrorism, this provides both a moral a practical reason not to pay ransoms.

While these arguments have a rational appeal, they are typically countered by a more emotional appeal. A stock approach to arguing that ransoms should be paid is the “in their shoes” appeal. The method is very straightforward and simply involves asking a person whether or not she would want a ransom to be paid for her (or a loved one). Not surprising, most people would want the ransom to be paid, assuming doing so would save her (or her loved one). Sometimes the appeal is made explicitly in terms of emotions: “how would you feel if your loved one died because the government refuses to pay ransoms?” Obviously, any person would feel awful.

This method does have considerable appeal. The “in their shoes” appeal can be seem similar to the golden rule approach (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). To be specific, the appeal is not to do unto others, but to base a policy on how one would want to be treated in that situation. If I would not want the policy applied to me (that is, I would want to be ransomed or have my loved one ransomed), then I should be morally opposed to the policy as a matter of consistency. This certainly makes sense: if I would not want a policy applied in my case, then I should (in general) not support that policy.

One obvious counter is that there seems to be a distinction between what a policy should be and whether or not a person would want that policy applied to herself. For example, some universities have a policy that if a student misses more than three classes, the student fails the course. Naturally, no student wants that policy to be applied to her (and most professors would not have wanted it applied to them when they were students), but this hardly suffices to show that the policy is wrong. As another example, a company might have a policy of not providing health insurance to part time employees. While the CEO would certainly not like the policy if she were part time, it does not follow that the policy must be a bad one. As such, policies need to be assessed not just in terms of how a persons feels about them, but in terms of their merit or lack thereof.

Another obvious counter is to use the same approach, only with a modification. In response to the question “how would you feel if you were the hostage or she were a loved one?” one could ask “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage in an operation funded by ransom money? Or “how would you feel if you or a loved one were taken hostage because the hostage takers learned that people would pay ransoms for hostages?” The answer would be, of course, that one would feel bad about that. However, while how one would feel about this can be useful in discussing the matter, it is not decisive. Settling the matter rationally does require considering more than just how people would feel—it requires looking at the matter with a degree of objectivity. That is, not just asking how people would feel, but what would be right and what would yield the best results in the practical sense.

 

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Protesting Distance

 

A group of Anonymous protesters opposite the L...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

In response to the NATO summit meeting in Chicago a diverse and large number of people took to the streets in protest. As is to be expected, the police also took to the streets to maintain order and to ensure that the people did not intrude on the meeting of the elites attending the event.

Obviously enough, the protesters generally wanted to get close enough to the summit so that their protests could be seen and heard by those attending. Equally obvious is the fact that the police were intent on preventing that from happening. In addition to the particular concern regarding this specific event, there is also the more general concern regarding how close protesters should be allowed to get to these sorts of events.

On the one hand, there are clearly legitimate grounds for keeping protesters a considerable distance from such events. The most obvious justifications are those based on security concerns. After all, not all protesters are peaceful and some of them might intend to have a go at those attending the event. There is also to concern that the ever-terrifying terrorists might use the protests as a cover for a terrorist attack.  Given the potential for such danger, keeping the protesters a significant distance from such events can be justified on both moral and practical grounds. In terms of the moral grounds, the justification would (presumably) be that the rights of the protesters to protest close to the event would be outweighed by the rights of those attending not to be harmed. Alternatively, this could be argued on utilitarian grounds: the harm done to the protesters is outweighed by the potential harms prevented against those attending the meeting. In terms of the practical grounds, it is clearly easier to maintain security by keeping what might be regarded as the public rabble away from those attending such events.

On the other hand, a case can be made that the protesters should be allowed close (or at least closer) to such events. One argument is that the protesters do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.

One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have  the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to shout protest slogans about NATO or taxes or whatever while occupying the public library. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest. To use another example, while people have a right to access public streets and sidewalks, it is one thing to be walking, running, biking or otherwise occupying these places as an individual and quite another to be occupying these places in a group that would stop traffic and impede travel.  As might be imagined, getting through crowds of protesters takes more time than driving streets that have been cleared of mere citizens. Such a delay would no doubt be annoying, even if one is in a limousine and has access to a car bar. As yet another example, the noise of the protesters might  interfere with the event, even through the soundproofing of a modern building. As a final example, those attending the event might find the protests upsetting or disturbing. After all, being accused (for example) of being a war profiteer or of destroying the middle class might cause the attendees some emotional disturbances. No doubt people attending such events would prefer a quiet event without anyone shouting such things at them.

This reply can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the right to quiet and free travel.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to allow protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd.

In the case of the NATO summit meeting, the protesters would disrupt things, but being closer to the event would not seem to cause significantly more disruption than being kept away from the event. While it is true that those attending the event will face some logistical challenges getting through the crowd, this could be managed. After all, the police in large cities routinely handle large events in which celebrities, athletes and so on need to be moved through large crowds (such as at concerts and sporting events). As such, it would seem that the logistics objection would not suffice to deny the right of a close protest.

There is, of course, some legitimate concern to protesters disrupting an event. After all, being a protester does not grant a person the right to override the rights of everyone else. Of course it is also true that attending an event and being a political or economic elite does not give someone the moral right to deny others their right to protest (although it certainly can provide the means to do so). Hashing this matter out requires a fair assessment of the legitimate rights of the protesters weighed against the legitimate rights of those being protested. In the NATO summit situation, it does seem that the protesters, at least those that are citizens of the respective states involved or at least affected by said states, do have the right to protest on the basis of their involvement in the issues at hand and to make their views on this matter known to those who make the decisions that impact their lives (and deaths). Given that mere citizens are typically not invited to such events, one of the few ways to express their views directly is via protest that can be heard and seen by the people being protested. This seems to be a rather important right, at least in states that purport to be democratic. After all, the vast majority of people do not have the money needed to hire lobbyists or create super PACS. As such, one of the few avenues of political expression left open is the protest and to impose on this right is to further dampen the voices of the people.

There is, of course, also the pragmatic concern that keeping the protesters at a “safe” distance from the elites by deploying riot police to beat down intruders serves to reinforce the impression of a truly sharp class division between the mere citizens and those who control things. Seeing riot police beating protesters like pinatas to keep them away from the rich and the powerful certainly does create an impression of real class warfare which certainly cannot be good for a state that purports to be a classless democracy.

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Targeted Killing

US propaganda leaflet used in Afghanistan.

Image via Wikipedia

The big news this week is that US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, this killing raises various matters that are philosophically interesting.

One obvious issue is whether or not a targeted killing of this sort is morally acceptable. The easy and obvious answer is that since Bin Laden was a very bad man, it was morally correct to put a bullet into his eye. While this is true, it is worth considering the matter in more general terms. After all, what feels justified in a specific case might not stand up to calm assessment when considered as a general principle.

On the face of it, the general principle that it is morally acceptable to target and kill bad people seems to be morally and practically problematic This sort of principle would seem to take us back to the state of nature (to be philosophical about it) or to the mythical Wild West (to be dramatic about it) and does not seem to be one that should be adopted within the context of civilization. After all, one key distinction between civilization and the state of nature is that civilization has a system of law rather than mere vigilantism.

One obvious reply is that Bin Laden was operating outside of civilization and had, in Lockean terms, placed himself into a state of war with the United States and other countries. On this view, Bin Laden can be regarded as an enemy combatant (and hence a legitimate target under the ethics of war).

The enemy combatant approach does have considerable appeal. After all, Bin Laden certainly seemed to regard himself as engaged in a war with the United States and the United States certainly seemed to accept this state of war as well. If killing in war is morally acceptable, then it would seem to follow that the killing of Bin Laden was morally acceptable. Killing him would be on par with killing any other soldier on the field of battle.

It might, however, be contended that Bin Laden a was not killed while on the field of battle. Rather, his home was invaded and he was shot to death within its walls. If this is morally justified as an act of war, then presumably it would be morally acceptable for  Qaddafi to order hit squads to kill NATO soldiers and leaders in their homes in America, France, the UK, and so on. However, the general principle that it is acceptable to send hit teams to kill soldiers at home seems to morally questionable, at least. After all, it would seem to erase the distinction between the soldier acting in the role of a soldier in war (which would make him/her a legitimate target) and the soldier as a person living his/her life outside of the domain of war.

In reply, it might be argued that the sort of war being waged by and against Bin Laden admits of no such distinction. Combatants are always combatants, even when at home, and hence legitimate targets. The idea that everyone is a legitimate target is, of course, a common tenet of the terrorist and there seems to be a certain justice in applying their own principle to them. Of course, the terrorists are supposed to be evil largely because they do not make such distinctions and hence accepting this principle as justifying the killing of Bin Laden comes with a moral risk.

This risk can be offset by arguing that there is no need to accept the terrorist’s lack of distinction. Rather, it can be argued that the terrorist’s failure to accept the distinction means that they themselves are in a constant state of being combatants. As such, they are always legitimate targets because they are always on the field of battle. Combatants that do make such distinctions (and follow them) are entitled to also be treated with such distinctions and, as such, targeted killings of such soldiers at home would be murder rather than acts of war. As such, killing Bin Laden at home would be justified.

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