Friday, April 27, 2007

Terrorism and Tyranny

Sonia makes an interesting point about the morality of terrorism when practiced against tyrannical regimes (she uses the word "totalitarian" but it comes to the same thing in this context). I agree with about 2/3 of what she says. First the good points:

Who is a terrorist ? A terrorist is a revolutionary who kills civilians while fighting against a government. An evil terrorist is a revolutionary who fights against a democratically-elected government. He is evil, because he has other, less radical means a this disposal to fight against a government he hates. In a democracy, it is not necessary to kill civilians to overthrow a government. It is both more humane and more effective to simply participate in the electoral process.
This is a point I have often made when trying to explain why bombing abortion clinics is wrong from a biblical point of view. As long as there is a legitimate means of changing bad laws, even the most evil practices should not be resisted violently. People in positions of authority may sometimes be justified in starting a violent revolution, but only if other means have been foreclosed. This leads to Sonia's second good point:
But how about a revolutionary who fights against a totalitarian, non-elected government ? If there are no free elections, no free press and no opposition parties, might terrorism be the only way to fight for freedom and democracy ?
Here, I think she is being a little imprecise by conflating "terrorism" with violent opposition, but since she forms this as a question, I will let it slide for a moment. But overall I think her point is valid and often missed by the people who try to make a tit-for-tat equivalence between, say, the Mid-East terrorists who attack democracies like the US or Israel and the violent response of those democracies. What they are missing (often intentionally, I think) is that there are other ways of getting a just government to respond to your objections. Those ways are not only more humane, they are often more effective as well.

But that conflation between "terrorism" and violence which I mentioned above leads Sonia to make the following dubious claim (which I have strung together from two different paragraphs, to clarify my objection):
Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro want the United States to extradite Luis Posada Carriles. They claim he is a terrorist, responsible for blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976.


There is no democracy in Cuba. So people like Carriles, determined to overthrow the totalitarian regime of Fidel Castro, have no legitimate and peaceful ways to accomplish their goals. For them, terrorism is the only way.
Obviously the latter half is merely an application of the general principle noted above to the particular example of Posada Carriles. But the problem is that the example she cites -- the bombing of Cubana 455 -- does not really qualify as an act against the Cuban government. While it is true that there were Cuban officials on board, and I have no problem with their assassination, destroying the entire plane with Cuban civilian and foreigner passengers is unjustifiable.

Sonia defines a terrorist as "a revolutionary who kills civilians while fighting against a government" but this is only part of the definition. A terrorist specifically targets civilians in order to cause disorder in and to weaken the will of the government in question. This tactic only works against just governments because they are actually concerned for the welfare of their citizens. Terrorism against a tyranny like Cuba cannot work because Castro has already committed greater atrocities and so is not likely to be terrorized. Also, any dissent which might result from his failure to protect his citizens from such acts of terror can be easily crushed due to his autocratic control over the country.

Of course, there may be other reasons to praise Posada Carriles, and I think on the whole the US is right to support him since he is definitely the lesser of two evils. But terrorism only destroys, it cannot be used as a force for good, even the good of opposing evil regimes.

Finally, Sonia draws a conclusion that I think is more rhetorical flourish than serious political analysis:
That's why democratic countries should never recognize non-democratic countries. Leaders who are not democratically elected have no legitimacy to govern. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, non-democratic countries should be invaded and their dictators hanged. Governing without a democratic mandate should be a crime against humanity, punishable by death.

Then, and only then, we will have the right to condemn all terrorists. If Cuba was a democratic regime, even a Communist one, I would be the first to call for Carriles's extradition. But because Castro was never democratically elected, revolutionaries like Carriles didn't have any legitimate, non-terrorist ways to overthrow his government. So even if civilians died because of Carriles's actions, Cuban judges, appointed by an unelected dictator, have no right to persecute him. It's Castro who should be put on trial instead of Carriles.
I ambivalent about this. I agree that democracies should avoid entanglements with dictatorships, but there are some distinctions that need to be made. Not all dictatorships descend to the level of evil that Castro's has. Pinochet of Chile and (possibly) Musharraf of Pakistan are examples of "illegitmate" governmets the alternatives to which are unquestionably worse. Also the Shah of Iran would count as a legitimate government that was by no means either democratic or just, but Carter's failure to support him in the 70s has disastrous results.

However, as I said, I think these final paragraphs are meant mostly for effect, and I generally agree with the point Sonia is making here.

UPDATE: On reflection, I didn't make my final point as clearly as I would have liked. While I agree that democracy (or at least representative, responsive government) is the best form, I am not quite as sanguine that it is the only legitimate form. There can be unjust democracies just as there can be just non-democracies. It isn't the way to bet, but it is possible.

1 comment:

sonia said...

It might be advantageous, for the US, in a short-term, to support various pro-Western dictators rather than risk an election of an anti-American populist.

But in the long run, it's a stupid policy. Us would be better off to cut off their support to right-wing dictators, let the chips fall, let them stupidly elect some anti-American firebrand who will ruin the economuy by nationalizing everything including toilet paper, and then wait and see until a popular revolt leads to an election of more moderate democratic leaders.

It's a risky strategy, I agree, but in the long run, it's a wiser one.

This applies to Iraq, as much as to Palestine, Pakistan, Iran and other places. Let them elect Hamas and Al Qaeda. But only for five years.

UN should establish a system: a free election every 5 years, in every country. No election (or an election where an incumbent wins by more than 59% of the vote), nuke the bastards...