Posts Tagged ‘Justice’

9/11: The Burden of the Past and the Promise of the Future

September 11, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The response to 9/11 has been challenged along two lines: that it imposed a huge cost on the world without making it much safer; and that a legal-political approach would have yielded better outcomes. Both arguments, implicitly or explicitly, presume that an alternative response was possible. A reassessment of this presumption can help highlight some less discussed aspects of our world before and after 9/11.

Prima facie it is plausible to assert that it was not necessary to frame the 9/11 provocation as an act of war. It could have been classified as a crime, albeit a spectacular one, and prosecuted using political leverage as needed. Given the near universal condemnation of the act and the swell of support for the US from nation-states, concerted political pressure on a weak Afghan state would in all likelihood have delivered the masterminds of the crime to be dealt with according to established legal procedures.

The apprehension of Osama bin Laden might have occurred much earlier but even if it had taken ten years, as it eventually did, the cost to the US and to the world would have been much lower.

There are recent precedents for the response to an Al-Qaeda (AQ) style movement. All through the 1970s, the Red Army Fraction (RAF) and the Red Brigades (RB) terrorized Europe using extremist ideologies and very violent means to destabilize states. In both cases their acts were treated as crimes and it took about ten years to completely snuff out the movements.

At its peak, AQ had no more than between three and five thousand core members. Why could it not have been dealt with along similar lines? Both the similarities and the differences between AQ and the European groups are instructive for this argument. The similarities are so striking that one is forced to take seriously the question of why they were treated so differently. Why, in particular, was the ideological rhetoric of the RF and RB never taken seriously while that of AQ was taken at face value, a stance that opened the door to a declaration of war?

The differences suggest possible answers to the question. First, both the RAF and the RB were largely confined within national borders (of Germany and Italy, respectively). Second, the motivations of the RAF and RB were entirely ideological; there were no specific criminal acts of the German and Italian states to which the groups could lay claim as the motivation for their acts of terror or which the states had credible need to defend in front of any audience. Third, the ethnic and religious identities of the contending parties were the same.

In the case of 9/11, it can be argued that AQ brought into the US the kind of ‘crime’ that was a commonplace in the global international order – that of attempting to destabilize other countries for self-proclaimed aims of national interest. How else would one classify the acts of the US government in Iran and Guatemala, of the USSR in Hungary and Afghanistan, of Iraq in Kuwait, or of Pakistan in India, to list just a few examples? It would be hard to argue that the determination of a crime turns not on the violation of a law or norm but on agreement with the self-serving rhetoric of the violator. It stands to reason that treating 9/11 as a crime, apprehending the AQ criminals alive and prosecuting them in a public trial would have forced an open discussion of the relative merits of such claims even if they were to be ultimately dismissed.

Given that the American citizenry has remained largely unaware of the long history of such US interventions (for which those at the receiving end consider the term ‘crime’ appropriate), it was far easier to cloud the issue in the rhetoric of war and ride the swell of patriotism to minimize any debate that might otherwise have transpired. The ‘otherness’ of AQ in terms of ethnicity and religion helped press all the old stereotypes into action to inflate its threat, couch the war in the frame of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ and trigger a discourse of ‘them’ hating ‘us’ because of our values.

This argument can be better appreciated in a longer time frame. In the age before the emergence of the nation-state and sovereign borders, these types of interventions did not fall into the category of crime. Alexander could attempt to subdue India, Changez Khan could roll across Central Asia, and Isabella and Ferdinand could conquer Mexico. In retrospect we can deplore such ‘violations’ but there was no framework that classified them as such. The interventionists neither needed permission from their own subjects nor were answerable to any international body charged with protecting the rights of non-subjects.

This began to change with the emergence of representative governments. Even though no global institutions existed to protect non-subjects, even if only in name, till much later, governments intervening outside their borders had to provide some convincing narrative to their own voters. This is when the ‘burden of civilization’ was born as a serviceable rationale. Thus the British takeover of India after 1857, though it did not need to be covert, was couched in the heavy rhetoric of bringing enlightenment to natives living in darkness who had to be gradually raised to the position where they could deserve to rule themselves. It was accepted that some people needed to be suppressed for their own good.

By contrast, American interventions, especially those following WWII, occurred in times when they were in violation of international norms. Therefore, they had to be covert and when they couldn’t, they needed to be legitimized. Wars of self-defense and pre-emptive actions to make the world a better place were among the sources of such legitimacy. In this perspective, one can understand how 9/11 was framed as an act of war – the US had been attacked and forced to retaliate in its defense. In order to forestall a discussion of the past, 9/11 was transformed into another Zero hour of history.

Once declared, the ‘war on terror’ elicited all the accompanying rhetoric; it would not only avenge humiliation and ensure justice, it would make the world safer, spread democracy to places where dictators reigned, and liberate women living under oppression. Left unsaid, since the past had been obliterated, was the fact that it was the US itself that had derailed democracy in many of these places and installed the dictators who were now to be replaced. And that the plight of women, or of dissidents struggling for civil and political rights, had heretofore never been a concern warranting a call to arms. Given the burden of history, all this could not have been said without exposing US officials to criminal charges of the kind that those from smaller countries (Serbia, Croatia, etc.) were expected to face under international law.

There was thus no alternative response to 9/11 except a ‘war on terror’ quite independent of its costs and consequences. It is of course quite probable that US officials underestimated the cost and duration of the war (indeed the selling of the war made such underestimation inevitable) or that alternative ways of waging the war could have resulted in lower costs. The fact remains that is difficult to conceive of a viable alternative response given the magnitude of the provocation and the prior understanding of history by the citizenry. Hence the almost immediate decision to commit to war and a strong discouragement of any questioning of that choice.

Ten years later, the costs of the war, the fact that it has exacerbated the very dangers it was supposed to quell, and the huge encroachments on individual liberties are all forcing into the open the very issues that the war was intended to bury. A potent new source of global instability and uncertainty has emerged. It is a fact that there is no nation-state that can do in the US what the US can do in other countries relying on the imbalance of power. What remained unanticipated, a failure of intelligence, was that changes in technology might enable a non-state group to commit an act of terror of such magnitude inside the US. The imbalance of power now stands reversed because non-state actors only need a few successful acts to destabilize the world or impose a huge cost on it while nation-states need to prevent each and every such attempt to feel secure. Even so, the uncertainty can never be reduced to zero.

The open-ended war against terror poses a further dilemma. The pronouncements of NATO powers justifying the war to their citizens fuel the resentments of those whose lived experiences are consequences of what they consider criminal acts in their countries. This is clearly an unsustainable situation that signals a shift towards a different equilibrium in the future.

The framework of rights can possibly provide a glimpse of that future. Rights to date have been wrested by citizens, workers, minorities, women and children. But all these rights have protection, to greater or lesser degree, inside national boundaries. There has been no equivalent protection of the rights of non-citizens. The citizens of Egypt, for example, had no effective recourse against the alleged complicity of the US in the violation of their rights. There was no forum to which such a charge could be brought for deliberation.

Ten years after 9/11 we are beginning to conceive a world in which such acts would be more openly questioned, where violation of the rights of non-subjects would trigger legal consequences, where countries would not be able to exempt themselves from international conventions, and where, when such acts are committed, the perpetrators would be subject to prosecution.

9/11 was a major crime committed by a murderous gang. The response to 9/11 began to lift the veil from the imbalance of global power in which this was just one crime among many and highlighted the fact that the world would only become a safer place when all such crimes are reduced by a credible threat of prosecution and arbitrary retaliations are ruled out. The rights of all citizens of the world need to be formally guaranteed and effectively protected. For that to happen there is need to advance to the stage where justice is no longer selective or subservient to power.

This article is a follow on to September Eleven.

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9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

September 14, 2010

A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion:

It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well. (more…)

On Loyalty and Patriotism

July 16, 2010

Loyalty and patriotism are emotive issues and it often proves difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them. I am going to seek an easier entry by dealing first with misplaced loyalty and patriotism.

I was drawn to this subject by the swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded the refereeing in the recently concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa. (See the articles by Jeffrey Marcus and Tim Parks.) I recalled the times when home umpires were the rule in test cricket and the endless talk of favoritism that inevitably ensued. There were umpires about whom it was said that their fingers used to go up even before there was any appeal. I suppose the umpires must have considered this an act of patriotism and loyalty to their fellow countrymen and I suppose some of the latter might have seen it in the same light. (more…)

South Asia – 2: Three Deprivations

October 25, 2009

Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations.

The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income.

The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power. (more…)

Justice, Power, and Truth

October 18, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

I checked the name index of Amartya Sen’s book (The Idea of Justice) for Foucault and found him missing. Let me explain why I found that surprising.

As mentioned earlier, Sen contrasts two approaches to social justice – the search for a perfectly just society versus the alternative of making existing society less unjust. These perspectives are given different labels – ‘arrangement-focused’ versus ‘realization focused’ or niti versus nyaya. The implication of the contrast is pithily summarized by an endorsement on the book’s back cover: “The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air.”

In terms of lineage, the arrangement-focused perspective is said to derive from the social contract formulation of Thomas Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) in our own times. The realization-focused perspective is traced from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Amartya Sen himself. (more…)

Sen’s Idea of Justice: A Puzzle?

October 17, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

I started reading Amartya Sen’s latest book The Idea of Justice in which he suggests we reduce injustice in the world we live in rather than attempt to create an ideally just world – he characterizes the contrasting perspectives as ‘realization-focused’ versus ‘arrangement-focused’ approaches to justice. For South Asians, the parallels are two different concepts of justice from early Indian jurisprudence – niti and nyaya. The former relates to ‘organizational propriety as well as behavioral correctness’ whereas the latter is concerned with ‘what emerges and how, and in particular the lives that people are actually able to lead.’

The distinctions, and Professor Sen’s preference, are quite clear and one can agree or disagree with his choice. Here I am concerned with the example that Sen uses to motivate his argument and to explain why I find it puzzling. I would like readers to reflect on the example and to comment on its appropriateness.

Sen uses an illustration called ‘Three Children and a Flute’ to make the point that it is not possible to find an unambiguous principle of justice that everyone can agree upon. The illustration asks the reader to decide which of three children – Anne, Bob and Carla – should get a flute about which they are quarreling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that only she knows how to play it; Bob on the ground that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own; Carla on the ground that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor. None of the individual claims are contested.

The argument Sen makes is that these are competing claims for justice and that there are no obvious reasons for preferring any one over the others:

The general point here is that it is not easy to brush aside as foundationless any one of the claims based respectively on the pursuit of human fulfillment, or removal of poverty, or entitlement to enjoy the products of one’s own labor. The different resolutions all have serious arguments in support of them, and we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.

What puzzles me is the following: Why does Sen pose this problem in terms of an issue of justice? To me it comes across much more as a problem of distribution that is made complex by the fact that we need to allocate one discrete commodity among three contenders. It is this discreteness of the commodity that turns the problem into one of choice, which then calls for a principle to govern that choice.

It is not clear to me why we should have our hands tied by the discreteness of the flute. If we relax this artificially imposed constraint we could consider a number of other solutions to the problem. For example, the flute could be sold and the proceeds distributed amongst the three claimants. This would not resolve the problem completely – Sen would surely ask for the principle that would govern the distribution of the proceeds – but it would certainly make the solution more tractable.

But even the limitation of discreteness need not preclude alternative solutions. The three contenders could agree that in the absence of any prior claims or rights, a just solution could be a fair lottery. Or they could agree on a cooperative solution in which each would get to keep the flute for a period of time with the order of the rotation determined by a fair lottery.

My argument is that this is not an issue of justice since no manifest injustice has been done to any of the three individuals. It is a simpler problem of distribution and it seems possible to find a cooperative solution if we do away with the stumbling block of the discreteness of the flute either by converting it into a divisible commodity (money) or by dividing its use over time. Once we do that we might even be able to find a single principle of fairness, e.g., egalitarianism, to govern the allocation of the divisible commodity. (This need not be the most efficient allocation. The more ambitious might try for allocations that make each claimant equally happy or maximize total happiness but these would again open up the debate over the merits of rival claims.)

I even do not see how the nature of prior claims, a dimension Professor Sen has ignored in his illustration, adds to the complexity of the problem. If Carla has made the flute and owns it, the other two have no claim to it. If Carla made the flute as a gift for the father who has left it as an inheritance, either the father’s will or the rules of inheritance would govern the allocation. Such rules vary across societies but in general have legitimacy amongst members of a society or there are accepted rules to resolve disagreements.

My question is as follows: Did Professor Sen choose a good illustration to motivate his argument? Should he have specified the source of the quarrel amongst the claimants? Is some prior information necessary to understand the context of the problem and its relevance to justice?

See Ten Unacceptable Things for our ongoing exercise based on Professor Sen’s suggestion.

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Ten Unacceptable Things

October 15, 2009

I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement.

This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies.

Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human dignity. From these few voices arose the discourse that transformed the issue first into a public debate and then into a political struggle that finally put an end to the practice. (more…)

Ghalib Says – 11

October 3, 2008

Justice delayed is justice denied:

ham ne maanaa kih taghaaful nah karoge lekin
khaak ho jaaeNge ham tum ko khabar hote tak

we accept that you will not show negligence, but
we will become dust by the time of the news reaching you

In the conventional reading, the lover (ham) is addressing the beloved (tum) and a number of ways of interpreting the text are possible as described by Frances Pritchett in A Desertful of Roses.

We will transpose the domain of the verse and let ham represent the citizen and tum the state. What does that yield us?

Well, for one, we can explore the entire gamut of the relationship between the citizen and the state in South Asia in modern times.

Does the citizen (really) believe that the state acts in his or her interest?

Does the citizen believe that the state knows what his or her interests really are?

Does the citizen believe that if the state knew what his or her interests were, it would not neglect them?

If the citizen believes that the state is negligent of his or her interests, what are his or her options?

How long ought the citizen to wait for the state to respond to his or her needs?

Is it the fate of the citizen to turn to dust unrequited?

At what point does enough become enough?

Now replace the citizen with the minority citizen and the entire picture of South Asian governance would be crystal clear before your eyes.

Call it the magic of Ghalib.

The question is: How do you look upon the state now and what can you do about it? Remember that, unlike the lover, the citizen does not need to suffer alone and in silence.

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As always, there is another take on this verse at Mehr-e-Niimroz, our partner in the Ghalib Project.