Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Burden of My Ethics: Responding to Paris

I was asked in class this morning for my thoughts on what has happened in Paris. I was unprepared for the question, although perhaps I should not have been, and offered a response as best I could that I hoped was something other than the responses we have seen so far. I thought I would -- perhaps for my own sake, but I hope not -- take the time to jot down my thinking in an effort to contribute to the discourse of a response. Ultimately, I will steal a page from J.S. Woodsworth and suggest that whatever response I feel appropriate, I should be careful *not* to impose my ethics on others as if I alone had the right answer. Indeed, at my age, I can call for just about any response that I want to -- any response that I feel appropriate -- because my response is almost gratuitous. The truth is that I will never have to implement whatever response I call for; someone else will. For instance, if I call for a renewed offensive against ISIS, someone else will have to engineer that response; someone else will drop the bombs; someone else will have to bear the burden of knowing that the response brought with it  collateral damage; someone else will, as it were, have to bear the burden of my ethics. This is a burden, I will say, very unwilling to make others bear.

All this sounds, confusing, what do I actually mean? This: if we ask the question "how should we respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris?" there are four points we should bear in mind.

First,  we need to remember that our response is structured by reality and by our context. A proper response to this tragedy begins from the perspective of the real world. We live in Canada and so we are dealing not with an abstract response but with a question of how Canada and Canadians should respond. We should avoid asking questions that work on abstract levels, such as: if we don't have a military response are we, in fact, doing nothing? This might a fair enough question for a classroom where we are teaching some type of thinking or reasoning but it is too detached from reality to be of practical use. Why? Because the issues before us are not abstract issues. They are practical issues that involve real human beings who lived and died. We need to be concerned about how Canada and Canadians should respond because we live in Canada and are Canadians. We are not concerned about how the US or the UK or some other country responds -- unless we have some interest in them -- because that is not our context and so becomes meaningless in terms of generating a proper response. I cannot, for instance, no matter how much I might want to, influence public policy in the UK because I am a citizen of another country. The first thing we need to do, then, is to bear in mind that whatever we do will take place in the real world and so should begin from that perspective.

Second, from our context in Canada, I believe we should resist the effort to politicize this issue and we should, in fact, as a first order of response, not politicize it. We should not call for any particular action as a first response, but we should instead, mark the memories of those who died and their families, friends, and loved ones. In other words, these terrorist acts were amazingly inhumane. Let us not complicate matters by denying humanity further. Instead, let us counter inhumanity by re-affirming the humanity of those how died, were injured, or are grieving. This is something we can all do and thousands have done this already. They have attended vigils, prayed, offered minutes of silence, taken some time quietly to send messages to friends in France or console those in distress. It is easy, I know, to toss around words about terrorists: to call them monsters, and inhumane, and criminal. And, these all might be true. But, their inhumanity should not become license for more inhumanity. We confront and contest inhumanity by responding with humaneness and, in the first instance, that means memory and support and caring for those who need to be cared for. Even in the midst of this horrible situation, to say this in other words, we can respond to this tragedy by denying the logic of terror and respond with the values that represent the higher ideals of care and compassion and humanity.

Third, we need, as well, to do what we can but we need to temper that action with a longer-range plan and with caring for those who will actually have to carry out our aims and ideals. I understand the calls for military action in the wake of these terrorist attacks. I expect that there will be concerted military action against ISIS in the weeks and months ahead and I fully expect this response to be a multi-pronged response that attacks ISIS not just in Syria and Iraq but wherever else that organization or its affiliates may be. The question we have to ask is not "is this response right" because, as I said, that is too abstract a question for us in Canada. I am not willing to pass judgement against those who call for military action because I "get it." I understand that many people feel that one way to be safe is to militarily eliminate threats. There is nothing wrong with safety or the desire to be safe. The French government and its allies will all determine courses of action which will include arrests, military action, and -- in extreme cases -- the suspension of civil rights. It is easy to offer a quick soundbite in support or opposition to these actions. I think we should refuse to do so, one way or the other.

Instead, I think what we need to ask as Canadians is this: what should Canada's response be? And, we need to understand that the range of possible, good, and effective responses is far broader than a lot of current discourse might make it seem. Our options, in other words, are not "bomb or do nothing." Still less is it: "not bombing is doing nothing."  There are all kinds of things that Canada can do. Our response should be mature. Neither you, nor I, nor the PM can snap our fingers and make a problem go away. We should not take the logic of instant-gratification consumerism and make believe that it can work in international affairs, against ISIS, or against terrorism. It can't and anyone who tells you differently is, in fact, politicizing tragedy to their own ends (or, to serve their own agenda) and is, thus, doing an amazing disservice to the people who died, those who were injured, and to the grieving family and friends. Said differently, if someone says "I am not certain that bombing ISIS is the right response" no one should then say "tell me right now what we should do." Media is set up this way. Pundit panels thrive on this kind of "oh, yeah, well what should we do and if you can't say right now what we should do, well, then that is bad"-types of discourse.

In yet other terms: one proper response to this horrible tragedy might be to say "you know, before we go and do anything, perhaps we should think about what we should do." Considered and intentional actions -- actions I have supported before in this blog -- are not bad things. In fact, they likely have a greater chance of proving to be right in the longer run than knee-jerk reactions. I prefer that my country take its time and generate a good and effective and humane response than have the current government say "OK, because of Paris, we will reverse our decision to stop bombing ISIS." If this is a longer run decision ... well ... so be it. I'm not certain I would agree but at least it is a decision that we could say was made intentionally and with consideration.

Understanding the full range of options in front of us, however, might be better way to proceed before determining on any one action. The issue before us, in my view, is how can Canada play a positive role in world affairs? What is the best use of the resources Canada puts into international affairs? Are we better off bombing ISIS -- that is, are we making a difference? -- or are we better doing other things. And, have no doubts, there are many other things that can be done. We can, and should, help some countries develop better policing as a response to their domestic human insecurity. We can and should become involved in international ecological protection. We can, and should, ratify the UN declaration of rights on indigenous peoples and help other countries (as well as our own) meet their objectives in that regard. We can aid in disaster relief and provide medical aid, and education for girls, and offer more -- many more -- spaces in post-secondary education in Canada for people from other countries. And, those are just "off the top of my head." If I took some time to google the matter, I'd almost certainly be able to produce a very long list. You may have your own ideas about what should be done. Send them in. I'll put them in the comments.

The point I want to make, of course, is this: to refuse the binary of bomb or not bomb is *not* doing nothing. One might elect military action -- again, I'd likely argue against this -- but we should elect it out of consideration for the range of options we have that can make a difference; not because of a false binary.

Finally, we in Canada should not allow these acts of terrorism to derail the good things that Canada was going to do. I've heard a few -- thankfully very few -- calls for Canada to not take Syrian refugees as a result of this tragedy. Sask Premier Brad Wall, for instance, said some ... dumb things. Heck, sorry, no other way to put it. He played the "even if one terrorist slips through" discourse, which we have all heard a thousand times before. But, in what I will take to be a real sign of national maturity, the general consensus seems to be that one should not blame the victims of ISIS for the actions of ISIS. Now, in fact, is the time to make a stand against ISIS by saying "we will look after the people you have scattered. We will stand up for humanity when you will not. We will be counted."

This will not, of course, derail ISIS. We should have no illusions about that. But it will stand as testimony of our values and the fact that we will do things differently. And, this is indeed part of a longer-run strategy to confront terrorism.

I mentioned at the beginning that I did not want to burden other people with my ethics. I don't. I am here not trying to articulate the "right" position but to be part of a discussion about how Canada should respond. It should, I suppose, go without saying that Canada's response will be different from other countries' and that, as a Canadian, my concerns are with Canada. They do not lie in judging others. But, the burden of my ethics is something else, as well. Years ago, J.S. Woodsworth refused to vote with everyone else in the House on a declaration of war against Nazi Germany. And, make no bones about it,  the war against Nazi Germany was a just war if there ever was one. Woodsworth knew this. His reason for not voting for war was not obstinance or some love of the Nazis. If you have studied your Canadian history, you know Woodsworth was the polar opposite of a Nazi. Instead, his argument ran something like this: I will not send one person to kill another person.

Let us be clear: if military action is taken, that is what we are doing. It is really easy for me, an almost 50 year old man sitting safely behind a desk, to call for military action because I will never have to live with the consequences of my call to arms. I will, for instance, never have to kill anyone. I'll never drop a bomb on anyone. I'll never have to know that the bomb I dropped killed some kid who just happened to be playing while an attack was going on. I will never have to live with the reality that my intentional actions caused the deaths of others, including (and, there is no way around this in a way) the deaths of ordinary people who had nothing to do with ISIS and might even have been their opponents. That is what  I mean by the burden of my ethics. I get to make an ethical statement -- for example, we can protect innocent life by using military force against ISIS -- but I never have to bear the burden of my own ethics. Someone else has to.

I know that this is a situation that happens all the time. But, in my view, it is also a situation that we should do our best to limit. It is one thing for me to make a statement. Another for me to believe that someone else should carry out my ethics, particularly if those involve disturbing things.

How should we respond to Paris? There are many things we can do. I've listed a number. I don't imagine they will all appeal to everyone but I am hopeful, in these first days after the terrorist attacks, that the responses will be mature, considered, and done with an understanding of building a positive role for Canada in world affairs.
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