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Selling a Vision of Hope: A Refreshing Alternative to Armageddon

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Vision of Hope
Archive >> November 2008
file under: terrorismself-defenseethics 21 Nov 2008 11:35 AM
Where does Self-Defense End, and Terrorism Begin? Posted by Nissim Dahan
Almost every legal system recognizes self-defense as a legitimate legal defense. If somebody is coming at you with an ax, and you have a reasonable concern for your life, and you have no means of escape, then you have the right to protect yourself, even if it means shooting the guy in the head. In short, the right to defend oneself is the right to take the life of another.

 

But is it possible that the right to defend oneself is being stretched so thin, that it crosses over into the realm of terrorism? And if that is the case, how do we know where the right to self-defense ends, and terror begins?

 

An example may help. As World War II was drawing to a close, the U.S. fought hard to defeat Japan. There were estimates at the time that victory in Japan, using conventional warfare, would cost millions of lives. President Truman made the painful and momentous decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And indeed, that decision prompted a quick surrender on the part of Japan. But could it be argued that the decision to drop the bomb was an act of terror, and not simply self-defense?

 

What is "terrorism?" The best definition that I've come across is: The intentional use of violence or fear against civilians for the purpose of promoting a political agenda. So there are two criteria for terrorism: the targeting of civilians, and a purpose to promote a political agenda. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilians were clearly targeted. But was the purpose strictly political, or did it contain enough of an element of the right to defend oneself, such that it could be seen as an act of self-defense? Clearly Japan was out to kill as many Americans as she could. And clearly, dropping the bomb saved lives by bringing the war to a quick close. But did the bomb cross the line into the realm of terror?

 

For the claim of self-defense to be legitimate, there needs to be a close and immediate connection between the defensive action taken, and the threat that is perceived by the person defending himself. If that connection is too loose, or tenuous, or indirect, then what is claimed in the name of self-defense, may quickly devolve into the realm of terror. And the distinction between self-defense and terror is an important one because political and military actions are being planned and taken, as we speak, based on this distinction.

 

If Israel and the U.S. decide to take preemptory action against Iran's nuclear facilities, is this self-defense or terror? Clearly, innocent civilians will be put at risk. But is the threat posed by a nuclear Iran strong enough to justify an act of "self-defense?" What do you think?

 

Barack Obama has expressed his view that if we get actionable intelligence as to Bin Laden's whereabouts, that he would take preemptive military action, even if the target was is Pakistan. Would this be self-defense or terror? Suppose that innocent civilians would be put at risk? Would this change the nature of the military action? What is America's aim here; to defend herself, or to send a message to her enemies? Does motivation change the nature of the action taken?

 

A few years ago, scores of innocent children were killed in a face-off in Beslan. A group of militants from Chechnya took over the school, and put the lives of hundred of children at risk. Could anything that was happening in Chechnya have justified this action, so as to make it an act of self-defense? Or are some actions beyond the pale of any sort of moral justification? Would Jews on their way to the death camps have been morally entitled to kill innocent children? Or are such actions beyond the pale of human decency, under any circumstances?

 

My sense is that each case has to be evaluated on its own merits. It is often the case that the line between self-defense and terror is a thin and fuzzy line at best. It is convenient to ascribe to various groups the labels which make it easier for us to evaluate their behavior. We take a certain comfort, for example, in calling this or that group a "terrorist organization." Such a designation makes it easier for to decide what to do. But the moral subtleties which underlie any given situation often undercut the notion that human behavior can be made to fit into nice and neat labels. We often have no choice but to evaluate each and every case on its own merits, even if it means questioning our preconceived notions.

file under: Obamahopeextremismenvironmenteconomy 6 Nov 2008 3:02 PM
Can Barack Obama Deliver On A Vision of Hope? Posted by Nissim Dahan
Barack Obama is the president-elect; a momentous event in the annals of American history, and an inspiration to people all around the world. President-elect Obama campaigned on a vision of hope, and in many ways, his life's story inspires a sense of hope: born into relative poverty, raised by a single mother, abandoned by his father, turning away from the reckless abandon of his youth toward the pursuit of the finest education, turning away from the pursuit of profit toward helping his own community, inspiring his nation with a vision of hope, and through that hope, becoming the first African American elected President of the United States.

 

But even though his life inspires a sense of hope, and even though he campaigned on a vision of hope, will Barack Obama be able to deliver on his vision? The problems he faces are daunting to say the least: an economic meltdown, huge budget deficits, two wars being waged simultaneously, the threat from ideological extremism, and a planet that is in peril due to environmental degradation. How can a vision of hope be given substance in the face of such seemingly insurmountable challenges?

 

To my mind, for what it's worth, there is still room for hope, and Obama hinted at the reason in his victory speech. He said something to the effect that this historic election was not really about him, but more about the people wanting to break from the past, and opting for change instead. And he said that his victory is not really the change we need, but is rather a chance for us to bring about the change we all hope for. And he said that it will not be he who brings the change, but the people themselves who will do that, just as they brought him to the presidency.

 

One commentator said of Obama that he is somehow able to deflect attention away from himself, and to shine a light upon the people instead. That sense of humility, and that ability to empower others, is why there is still hope to turn things around in America, and to set the stage for change around the world.

 

Take Global Warming as an example. I am reading Tom Friedman's book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. He sees climate change as the moral imperative of our time. But he does not think that government can effectuate the change needed, even though tax incentives, regulation, and leadership are indispensable in this regard. Instead, if we're looking for a clean, renewable, and cheap source of energy, it will come from innovation on a personal level. It will come from thousands of companies, and thousands of inventors working in their garages, to come up with new technology. It will take the engines of our economies to select which innovation is best suited for commercial production. And it will take hard working employees to produce the products which can save our planet, or more accurately, our place on it. So government can help, but it will be for the people to pick up the slack, and to make things happen.

 

And just as with Global Warming, so too will it be up to the people to solve our current economic crisis. I read an article today about Credit Default Swaps. These are financial instruments which, along with bad mortgages, are at the heart of the economic mess we're in. The writer wrote, "When you see people earning $100 million dollar bonuses from using money to make money, instead of real things, start worrying." Instead of making money by making real things like houses, bread, shirts, cars, and computers, we decided to make money by shuffling papers. So here again, the answer may be inspired by a President Obama, but the ultimate solution will come from the hard work of workers, who by their productivity, will create economic growth based on real value, not empty pieces of paper.

 

And so too with ideological extremism, which threatens much of the world. Yes, government can fight wars, and yes, sometimes there is no choice but to fight; but in the final analysis, the answer for extremism will be in the hands of the people, who will talk to one another with common sense and with a sense of personal dignity, who will invest in one another to create jobs which protect the environment, who will use those jobs to neutralize the hold of extremist thinking, who will sell one another on a vision of hope which is given substance in reality, who will sustain the hope with public diplomacy, and who will fight against the forces of extremism, the forces which would render the possibility of hope null and void.

 

And so, if everything works out well, God willing, and if the stars become aligned in just the right way, then Barack Obama, whose life has come to symbolize a vision of hope, and who campaigned by selling us on a vision of hope, will inspire us, each in his own way, to realize a vision of hope, not by depending on him, but by depending on ourselves to make true what is now only a dream.