Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Terrorism, sociology, and personal freedom


It’s human to look for connections. We do it when we hear that a friend has cancer. And we do it every time an individual—or two brothers in Boston—go out and succeed in killing total strangers. Raising concern for the “root” causes of violence if you’re a Canadian Liberal, or the possibility of bureaucratic negligence if you’re an American Republican, is unsurprising; it’s human nature, it sounds constructive, and it is widely associated with analytical and sophisticated thinking.  

Nevertheless, liberal-minded people as well as libertarians should actually be comforted by Barack Obama and Stephen Harper’s focus on the crime of terrorism and the resolve of their governments to punish those individuals found guilty of willfully taking their politics out on the lives of others.

Harper’s complaint about “practicing sociology” was partisan and, consequently, politically untimely. And Obama’s reluctance to talk about “radical Islamists” is being exploited by his opponents. Nevertheless, is it reasonable—and, more importantly, is it safe—to imply that the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15 just might not have happened: if our national governments paid greater attention to minority-group individuals, their politics, and their grievances, or, on the other hand, if they more aggressively monitored edgy individuals and damned extreme rhetoric and radical movements?

Should our governments connect what people think and how they express themselves peacefully—in a free society—with acts of premeditated violence?

The implications of choosing "yes" are not any safer than lashing out emotionally.

Should we contemplate shifting our alliances in the Middle East in the hope of mollifying potential domestic terrorists? If America drives some individuals crazy, should Canada try to be less American? Should all of us be less hostile toward the political and religious points of view we despise in order to avoid terrorist violence?

In democracies, minorities—gays and French Canadians, for instance—can persuade majorities to retreat from and surrender old policies by persuading them that those old policies are unjust. Is terrorism simply politics on speed?

Senator Lindsey Graham wonders whether the US security behemoth “let its guard down” in Boston because it did nothing about the Tsarnaev brothers even though the older brother, Tamerlan, had already said hateful things on YouTube about living in a nation of “Christian infidels.” Yesterday, the New York Times ran a profile of his younger brother, Dzhokhar. It found hints of a “dark side”; a smart, promising, popular 19-year-old who’d, nevertheless, “alluded to disaffection with his American life and the American mind-set.”

Keep digging. He may also be hooked on Wire and Mad Men.

Should Obama and Harper hire more sociologists, political psychologists, and computer engineers to daily monitor the private utterances and activities of a far higher percentage of American radicals and landed immigrants? If radical Islamist thinking causes middle-class North Americans to commit murder, do we make radical political utterances a crime too?

In a free country, a young man needn’t mask his “dark side.” Our governments shouldn’t be told by us to respect our privacy and, at the same, be expected to know what everyone is thinking—if they don't happen to think like us.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent a lifetime struggling to understand how individuals decide to commit cold-blooded murder. We shouldn’t ask our politicians, their scientists, or their unbelievably powerful computers to try to figure us out now.

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