Friday, July 25, 2008

Responding to Terrorism: what is appropriate?

Daniel Barnes posted an entry on Leonard Peikoff's appearance on the Bill O'Reilly show shortly after 9/11. The post is titled The Madness of King Leonard. An interesting discussion ensued. I weighed in with the following.

I think Peikoff's main point is sound: that we have the right to defend ourselves. However, I disagree with his conclusion that we are therefore justified in bombing an entire country into oblivion, including the many people who have no voice in what their government does or condones. Peikoff and other Objectivists including Rand herself seem to believe that people who are born in countries like Iran deserve what they get because they don’t emigrate to another, freer country. While I agree with the need for decisive, forceful action I don’t think we can objectively defend blanket destruction. While I acknowledge that we used the atomic bomb in Japan to break the will of the Japanese government I doubt if the same approach would work in Iraq, primarily because we’ll dealing with pockets of resistance, not a central government that is fighting us.

I would hope our police never adopt Peikoff’s policy. If they did I’d never want to be a hostage in a bank robbery!

Fortunately our military tried to minimize civilian casualties while targeting appropriate key facilities. Our mistake was in not committing enough troops to flesh out and crush the insurgents. I also read somewhere that the local leaders who could help us initially laid low because they were afraid of being left high and dry by the U.S., thus exposing themselves to terrorists in their midst. Within the last year these leaders started to help our troops ferret out the opposition.

Peikoff’s position reveals a simplistic either-or approach that typifies some Objectivist “thinking”. They take a fundamentally sound premise then apply it without acknowledging context or conditions that would modify one’s conclusion or actions.

Peikoff indeed was borderline apoplectic which certainly doesn’t improve his chances of getting his message heard. Once again this is a symptom of someone who feels that the certainty of their position can speak for itself and needs no “spin,” concern with presentation or with consequences.

1 comment:

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Henry,

That thread seems to be a bit sidetracked at the ARCHNblog, so I thought I 'd respond here.

>I think Peikoff's main point is sound: that we have the right to defend ourselves. However, I disagree with his conclusion that we are therefore justified in bombing an entire country into oblivion..

I agree. I don't think anyone (except radical pacifists) would disagree that the US has a perfect right to defend itself. (In fact what seems to have fallen down the memory hole in many discussions is that following 9/11 there was a massive outpouring of international sympathy. It was a great opportunity for America and its allies to work in concert to capture those responsible. Instead, in some kind of miniature version of Peikoff's reaction, the Bush Administration managed to take a stance that not only alienated many of their allies, but lacked any basic common sense.)

It seems to me the overreaction we're seeing with Peikoff is basically a result of Rand and Peikoff's penchant for rhetorical absolutism. This in turn has its root in the central yet self-contradictory doctrine of "contexual absolutes" - because an "absolute" so qualified is not an absolute at all. Not many Objectivists, including Rand and Peikoff, have thought this underlying doctrine through, and thus the "absolute" usually surfaces without the qualifier as a rhetorical device - "I am absolutely not concerned with innocents." This rhetorical device allows the Objectivist speaker all the vehemence of the traditional absolutist, with the "contextual" able to be brought to bear to dilute and confuse the issue should the speaker be pressed. This rhetorical absolutism also I think leads to a version of the doctrine of collective responsibility which as you note in your post creeps into Rand and Peikoff's commentary on places, and which sits very awkwardly in an individualist philosophy.