In one sense this is a bit out of date, and yet in another it’s still relevant. The war on terror is a war of terror: terrorists have succeeded in terrorizing large portions of western populations and their governments, and in provoking them to “show their real faces”. The “imperialists” are still waging war in other countries, detaining people without a trial, torturing them etc. And as long as they do so, the terrorists have what they want.
Here are a few maps depicting the events of 9-11-2001. The first one shows the flight paths of the hijacked planes:
This next one shows the impact location in the two towers of the WTC, as well as the trajectory of some of the debris of the planes (the north tower, WTC 1 was hit first, 20 minutes before the second plane hit WTC 2):
(source, click image to enlarge)
This map shows which buildings were damaged or destroyed:
The following infographic explains why the buildings collapsed:
(source, click image to enlarge)
And this map shows the locations of human remains found on or around ground zero (never mind the indication of the “mosque“; some people believe that this is somehow relevant):
On July 7th 2005, during the morning rush hour, a group of Muslim young men carried out a series of coordinated suicide attacks on 3 of London’s subway lines and on one double-decker bus. At 08:50, three bombs exploded within fifty seconds of each other on three London Underground trains (the three red circles in the map below), a fourth exploding an hour later at 09:47 on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square (the red and black circle).
Here’s some more detail about the specific events and the chronology (click image to enlarge):
The map below gives some detail about the second attack, close to Russell Square:
The map below shows the last attack on the bus:
Read the full story here.
Two weeks later, on July 21st 2005, London witnessed four attempted bomb attacks, this time without much damage because the bombs failed to explode. While the manhunt for the perpetrators was in progress, on July 22nd, the police shot and killed a Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell tube station shortly after 10:00. Officers had pursued de Menezes from a location under surveillance, believing him to be one of the men wanted for the attempted attacks of the previous day. They apparently believed de Menezes was about to carry out a new attack. Afterwards, the police admitted that de Menezes was not involved in any of the bombings or attempted bombings. Read the whole story here and here. Here’s a map depicting the tragic event:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Why do we need the qualifier “human” when we talk about human rights? Why is the word “rights” not enough? The obvious reason is that we want to broaden the class of protected persons to cover the whole of humanity. Traditionally, rights were accorded only to specific groups of persons, e.g. the nobility, guilds, citizens etc. The essence of human rights is their universality, which means that they are rights that belong to human beings whatever group they are part of and wherever they happen to live. People have certain rights for the simple reason that they are human; there’s no need for any other reason such as group affiliation, nationality, form of government, legal system etc.
Human rights can thus be seen as the end state of a long expansionary evolution during which ever broader groups of people acquired certain rights. However, the inclusiveness of human rights has often been countered by exclusionary movements. If some want to include a maximum number of people under the protection of rights, others have an interest in the continuation of rights violations. The latter have two options: challenge human rights directly (e.g. by claiming that they are western rights, godless rights etc.), or take the more indirect route: maintain the notion of human rights but at the same time exclude some categories of people from humanity.
Many rights violations are explicitly or implicitly justified by reference to an absence of humanity on the part of the targets of those violations. The terror inflicted by Al-Qaida, the televised beheadings of innocent hostages etc. proves that these people are less than human. They are “animals” and can’t therefore claim that their “human” rights are respected when they are executed extra-judicially, eliminated by way of targeted killing, tortured, or arrested indefinitely in Guantanamo. Perhaps people don’t mean it literally when they say that terrorists are animals. Perhaps they do accept that they are human – they look human after all – but at least they are lesser humans, and hence not deserving the same rights as the rest of humanity. Perhaps they are merely barbarians, a separate and inferior class of humans.
The same attitude is evident in certain non-consequentialist justifications of capital punishment: the people who are executed are “the worst of the worst”, “animals” that have proven their inhumanity by way of their crimes. Also the native populations of colonized territories were considered to be non-human or at least lesser humans. There was a time when westerners weren’t sure that these people had a “soul”, a classic if currently somewhat outmoded distinguishing mark of humans. For those who believed they didn’t have a soul, their enslavement and murder was as acceptable as keeping and slaughtering animals. It took a Papal Bull to attempt to reign in the more extreme colonizers, without much success by the way.
This raises the fundamental question: what is “human”, what does it mean to be human, what is humanity? Respect for human rights depends on the type of answer we can agree on. Ideally, we would like to have a broad definition that makes it difficult if not impossible to exclude large portions of homo sapiens from the category of humanity and to violate their rights as a result of this exclusion. Claiming that someone is human because of his or her “good behavior”, e.g. non-terrorist and non-murderous behavior, is not the right way forward. “Good behavior” is a moralistic notion that can be defined in lots of different ways. Hence we potentially exclude the large majority if not the totality of people from humanity if we go along that road.
On the other hand, a non-moralistic definition, for instance a naturalistic or biological one, isn’t necessarily better. Given the way in which we treat animals, it’s probably best to avoid a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species (in Plato’s phrase, the “featherless biped“). An animal species, however distinct from other species, still consists of animals that are in some sense like other animals belonging to other species. We don’t have moral rules that tell us to treat cats differently from dogs, so a definition of humanity as a distinct animal species is unlikely to yield moral rules that tell us to treat humans differently from cats or dogs.
However, biology can be a useful element in the definition of humanity since it’s biology that justifies some human rights. Some of the biological vulnerabilities that are distinctive of us featherless bipeds, and perhaps even some of the vulnerabilities we share with some non-human species (e.g. the ability to suffer) can be seen as reasons to respect certain human rights. (Although in the latter case the price to pay would be to grant the same rights to non-human species that have the same vulnerabilities; those human rights would then no longer be strictly “human” rights. But perhaps that’s a price we should be willing to pay).
However, for the reasons given above biology is hardly sufficient for the definition of humanity. I guess we also don’t want to use the concept of “soul” to define humanity, given its association with religion. Ideally, we want to be persuasive to the non-religious violators of human rights as well, and those won’t be swayed by soul talk (perhaps they won’t be swayed at all but at least we can try). “Human nature” is a discredited concept, dignity is excessively vague, and moral agency seems to be less typical of humanity than we once believed.
So what can we use? I’ve argued elsewhere that some values that are typical of and in certain cases exclusive to human beings – or homo sapiens – can be seen as adequate justifications of human rights, since these rights serve the realization of those values (examples of those values are the importance of thinking, of social and cultural life, of religion, of prosperity, peace etc.). Excluding certain specimen of homo sapiens from the category of humanity or “real humanity” is then an attack on values that are shared by all specimens; rights violators then unwillingly attack their own values.
However, one problem remains. People’s rights aren’t necessarily safe, not even if we can settle the question of humanity and define the concept in such a way that it becomes difficult to exclude people from humanity. Humanity itself can be the problem. If human rights can be violated when a person’s humanity is denied, it’s also the case that a person who’s merely human runs the same risk. Hannah Arendt has often cited the plight of stateless persons before and after WWII, people whose nationality had been taken away from them by their racist, fascist or xenophobic governments, and who therefore only had their “humanity” left. In the best of cases, they were refugees in foreign countries where their rights were far from safe given that many countries only protected the rights of their own citizens.
The notion of humanity inherent in human rights is also incompatible with widespread feelings of partiality: most of us care more for our family and friends than for the rest of humanity, and some of us also care more for fellow-citizens. Somehow that’s inevitable: not only is it psychologically impossible to care for all the misery in the world – there’s simply too much of it – but it also seems morally right to care more for those who are closer.
In all those examples, we see that human rights have to come back to partiality. Inherent in human rights is universal inclusiveness, but at the same time we see that human rights can only be adequately protected when they are at the same time rights of very specific subgroups of humans: citizens, soldiers, family etc.
Osama bin Laden is seen at an undisclosed location in this television image broadcast October 7, 2001. Bin Laden praised God for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and swore America “will never dream of security” until “the infidel’s armies leave the land of Muhammad.”
I really hope this isn’t true:
Female homicide bombers are being fitted with exploding breast implants which are almost impossible to detect, British spies have reportedly discovered.
The shocking new Al Qaeda tactic involves radical doctors inserting the explosives in women’s breasts during plastic surgery – making them “virtually impossible to detect by the usual airport scanning machines.”
It is believed the doctors have been trained at some of Britain’s leading teaching hospitals before returning to their own countries to perform the surgical procedures.
MI5 has also discovered that extremists are inserting the explosives into the buttocks of some male bombers.
“Women suicide bombers recruited by Al Qaeda are known to have had the explosives inserted in their breasts under techniques similar to breast enhancing surgery,” Terrorist expert Joseph Farah claims. (source)
The targeted killing of terrorists, either by special forces or by unmanned drone aircraft (aptly named “Predators” or “Reapers“), raises a number of moral questions. Let’s focus here on the drone attacks (and also exclude the cases where there’s an imminent attack, because those can be considered morally easy cases of self-defense). There’s an interesting documentary here. If you can’t watch it in your country, here’s a quote describing it:
A guy gets in his car and drives to work in an office in Nevada. From his office he controls drones in Afghanistan. Occasionally he kills people (who can’t shoot back at him, since he’s 8000 miles away). When he’s done, he gets in his car and drives home to his wife and kids. You can tell the difference between ordinary farmers and insurgents by the way they move across terrain, apparently. (source)
I can think of a few moral dilemmas coming out of this, and I would like to see how you vote on these. So here they are.
1. I know that one of the advantages of drones is supposed to be their effectiveness: compared to normal, long distance bombing (such as the shock-and-awe attacks on Baghdad from the Persian Gulf), drone attacks are said to be a lot less indiscriminate. After all, that’s why they are called targeted “killings”. However, to the extent we can judge – there’s no public database of drone attacks – it’s not uncommon to hear about drones mistakenly targeting weddings instead of evil terrorist meetings, or killing bystanders together with the terrorists. It seems that the main reason for using drones is that you don’t endanger your own flying crews, and certainly not your ground troops. After all, once you have identified a target, a drone isn’t more precise than a normal bomber plane. So, if that’s the motive, we can ask if the prioritization of the minimization of risk to soldiers on your own side over the minimization of risk to civilians on the enemy side, is morally acceptable in war.
2. To broaden the point somewhat: is it generally fair or rather cowardly to shoot people who can’t shoot back, or to harm people from such a distance that they can’t harm you back, or is it morally praiseworthy to shoot people while minimizing the risk on your side?
3. Is killing people by way of drone attacks an admissible act of war or a war crime, assuming that the people killed are actually combatants or terrorists (and assuming that terrorists can be treated like enemy combatants in a normal war) rather than innocent civilians, and that the technology is therefore effective?
4. If Al Qaida kills the operators mentioned in the quote, is it an admissible act of war or terrorism?
5. If you have checked the first answer in question #3, do you believe it’s logical to check the first answer in question #4 a well? If not, why not? Add your reasons in the “other” box.
6. The same question as #4, but slightly modified, and assuming you checked the first answer in question #3. If Al Qaida detonates a bomb that wipes out an entire neighborhood, including the operators mentioned in the quote, can they claim their actions are equivalent to targeted killing by the U.S., given the fact that targeted killing isn’t always very precise either? Or are they wrong and are they in this case not engaging in admissible acts of war but in terrorism?
7. Again, a small modification of question #4, and assuming you checked the first answer in question #3: if Al Qaida detonates a bomb that wipes out an entire neighborhood, believing the operators mentioned in the quote were present, but they actually weren’t present, can they claim their actions are equivalent to targeted killing given the fact that drone attacks are known to have targeted places where terrorists were supposed to be but actually weren’t? Or are they wrong and are they not engaging in admissible acts of war but in terrorism?
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
Here’s another version:
Read this map as follows: extraordinary renditions allegedly have been carried out from the countries in dark blue; detainees have allegedly been transported through those in light blue; to the countries in red. The United States and countries with suspected CIA black sites are indicated, appropriately, in black.
- Uncovered: Britain’s secret rendition programme (independent.co.uk)
- European rights chief: Rendition flights probes are weak because countries fear upsetting US (foxnews.com)
(source, also for the story behind this picture taken by Richard Drew at 9:41:15 a.m., on September 11, 2001 of a man falling from the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks in New York City)
Some sources says that Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old employee of the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Centre was The Falling Man. Briley lived in Mount Vernon, New York, and worked in the North Tower restaurant. Others claim that he was Norberto Hernandez, who worked in the same restaurant. Identifying the man is obviously difficult.
The photograph is somewhat misleading, as it gives the impression that the man is falling straight down. However, this is just one of a dozen photographs of his fall, and in other photographs it is evident that he is tumbling through the air. People
began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building’s fatal wound. … For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. … their way down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds. (source)
As many as 200 people fell or jumped to their deaths that day.
Here’s an impressive poetic interpretation by Wisława Szymborska:
Photograph from September 11, by Wisława Szymborska
They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
More Szymborska here.
Waterboarding is an old torture technique from the Spanish Inquisition. It consists of immobilizing the “target” on an inclined board, head down, with cloth covering his or her face. Pouring water over the face simulates drowning. The victim inhales water, and is convinced that he or she is drowning and about to die. As the target is convinced of imminent death, waterboarding amounts to a mock execution. The practice leaves no physical marks, although it can lead to brain damage if the breathing process is stopped for certain length of time. And there is inevitably psychological damage.
Waterboarding is illegal under the Geneva Conventions and hence it’s a war crime.
Waterboarding should be distinguished from other, similar torture techniques that are shown in the following two pictures, one of torture in Cambodia, and the other of a case in a NY prison:
Like most forms of torture, waterboarding is utterly useless.
“For example, when used against alleged al-Qaida mastermind Abu Zubaydah, waterboarding apparently produced a stream of statements from Zubaydah of such dubious quality – according to journalist Ron Suskind – that intelligence officers now widely believe any evidence gleaned from Zubaydah to be utter garbage”. Phillip Carter and Dahlia Lithwick
And even if torture such as waterboarding were a good system to produce intelligence, it’s difficult to determine whether we know enough about a “target” to decide that he or she knows something worth torturing for. Furthermore, in subsequent judicial trials, the testimony is worthless because produced under torture. A guilty man may then walk free because we tortured him. Worse yet, there is the image problem which a regime that tortures creates for itself. It becomes very difficult to claim the moral high ground against ruthless terrorists, for example. Or to protest against similar treatment for your own soldiers captured by the enemy. The enemy is emboldened by our practices, first because of revenge for what we do to them, and second because the immorality of something is diluted when the “leader of the free world” engages in it.
There is also the slippery slope theory:
“[T]here are few slopes more slippery than that from small war crimes to large ones. Any wartime action, no matter how heinous, can always be justified by some battlefield exigency.” Phillip Carter
And finally, there is the psychological damage for the torturer, and the moral damage for the society that practices torture.