Monday, November 10, 2008

Attacks into Foreign Countries

Let's assume that you wake up in the morning to a news article that says that Cuba has paramilitary groups operating in the United States whose purpose is to hunt down and kill Cuban dissidents. They admit to this. In the article, they spoke openly of one such raid in which, let us say, seven Americans were killed including somebody who was suspected of plotting the overthrow of the Cuban government.

There are other stories – the story of a holiday party at one home in which the home blew up and twelve people (including five children) were killed. The Cubans continue to deny having anything to do with that event though, at the same time, they assert that there was a high level anti-Cuban activist at that holiday gathering.

Would you consider those actions to be legitimate?

This question concerns reports that the United States has behaved in the way described here. (See: New York Times, Secret Order Lets U.S. Raid Al Qaeda)

Please note that this blog is about ethics, not about what is politically expedient. The question I am asking is whether a nation's right to self-defense includes a right to send secret raids into other countries for the purpose of killing people that the government considers to be a threat.

If this right exists, it implies that no government does anything wrong by sending its agents into America to kill Americans that it deems to be a threat. These killings, even when they are conducted on American soil and even when those who are killed are American citizens, would be classified as legitimate acts within that government’s right to self-defense.

However, if we deny that another government's right to self-defense includes the right to send its agents onto American soil to kill American citizens, then America’s right to self-defense excludes the right to send American agents into other countries to kill its citizens under relevantly similar circumstances.

This is the nature of morality. Morality is concerned with universal principles – principles that are to be applied in the same way to self and to others. A moral principle asserting the permissibility of sending agents into another country to kill its citizens implies an equal moral principle on the part of other governments to send agents into America to send American citizens. On the other hand, a moral prohibition on other countries sending agents into America to kill American citizens implies a moral prohibition on the American government sending agents into other countries to kill the citizens of those other countries.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that the world can be this simple. One of the reasons why it is impermissible for other countries to send agents into America to kill Americans is because we have laws that prohibit its citizens from plotting the violent overthrow of other countries. Only the federal government itself has the right to plot the violent overthrow of other governments. So, instead of sending agents to kill Americans, foreign governments can offer their evidence to the American government who can then arrest the individuals as conspirators.

However, even here it must be remembered that the accused broke an American law and are thus entitled to a trial in an American court.

Keeping the peace not only requires that such a law exist, but it requires that the American government be diligent in enforcing that law. This way, foreign governments have no reason to send agents into America to kill Americans.

This further implies that America's obligations not to send agents into other countries in order to kill their people is contingent on those other governments adopting and enforcing similar provisions, where the American government can simply present its evidence to the foreign government and can rest assured that the accused will be rounded up as quickly as possible and tried in an open court.

Of course, America does not like to present its evidence to foreign governments. It does not want to give its evidence to anybody. That is why it insists on trying people in secret courts where the evidence itself is kept secret.

Let’s keep these two different cases clear.

In one case, a government is unwilling or unable to capture somebody that we are willing to prove is attempting to attack us – in which case America has the right to attack those threats unilaterally (or to work with that government in doing so). Here, we can say that other governments have the same rights. However, since the American government is both willing and able to apprehend Americans plotting attacks on other countries, they preconditions for them to exercise that right does not exist.

In the other case, a government is dealing with another government willing and able to deal with people in its borders who are plotting attacks on other governments. However, the country under threat refuses to provide evidence to that other country.

To judge this latter case, assume that the Cuban government decides that it does not want to share its evidence with the American government out of fear that this would compromise its national security. Does this decision not to share evidence imply that Cuba then has the moral right to send agents into America to kill Americans based on this evidence that it will not share? Or is Cuba morally limited to refrain from sending agents into America to kill Americans as long as it refuses to provide evidence.

Again, as a moral argument, whatever moral principle we decide on goes both ways. If a nation's right to self-defense includes the right to send agents into other countries to kill their citizens as long as the attacking country wants to keep its evidence secret, then America has a right to send its agents into other countries to kill their citizens. And, according, other countries have the right to send their agents into America to kill Americans. If other countries have no such moral right to kill Americans, then America has no such moral right to kill others.

This is the nature of moral reasoning.

The Bush Administration showed repeatedly that its leaders were notoriously poor when it came to moral reasoning. We should remember that the worst people in history have all thought that their actions were justified – that there was no evil in what they did. The difference between good and evil does not come from believing that one does good or one does evil. It comes from actually doing good or evil – which requires the ability to tell the difference. The evil that permeates the Bush Administration stems largely from their inability of its leaders to tell the difference.

A person can look at this argument and recognize that doing the right thing makes them feel uncomfortable. It involves risk, and they feel no obligation to undergo risk.

However, the very difference between good and evil rests in one's willingness to do good even where circumstances make it tempting to do evil. If the principle we are going to live under and teach others is to, "Do the right thing, unless you don’t want to," then we are not promoting morality. We are promoting its opposite.

President-Elect Obama will have to deal with political realities in making his decision. He will have to deal with the fact that an evil population may compel him to promote evil policies. In the 1800s, no politician, no matter how skilled, could end slavery in South Carolina. No President in the 1920s could have ended lynching. No President today may be able to end the practice of sending people into foreign countries to kill its citizens – not if the pepole want it badly enough.

However, that does not make it right.


Anonymous said...

You make a fair point, but I think you have to take into consideration the nature of the nations that are in question. These nations in the Middle East play by a different set of rules, and tracking a terror suspect in Syria is not quite the same as a Cuban dissident in America.

It's a valid moral argument, but I think that this is a very unorthodox war. Agree or disagree with the war all you want, but the fact is that we are fighting it, and if we are going to fight a war against a nationless people (terrorists), then there are going to be times when crossing borders of uncooperative countries will take place.

Most of these situations could be handled much more easily if the governments of these nations were a bit more cooperative when shown evidence of criminals inside their borders. The reason the scenario you described would be such an outrage is that it implies that the U.S. government did nothing when shown evidence, leading Cuba to send their military to take care of what we didn't take care of for them.

Morally speaking, I agree with you, but I think the specifics of these situations, with these countries, allows for a different set of rules for us to play by as well.

But either way, I like the argument from a philosophical standpoint.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I wrote in the article that it is morally relevant whether a state has institutions for finding and arresting citizens who plot attacks on other countries.

The moral prohibition on entering a state and attacking its people depends on the state in question diligently enforcing a prohibition on its people plotting attacks on other countries.

That is a morally relevant difference.

Sheldon said...


The Cuban example is not just purely hypothetical. The U.S. govt. has harbored and supported people who have engaged in terrorist attacks against Cuba. Here are some links to the Cuban 5 case which deals with Cubans gathering intelligence and alleged conspiracy to murder. There is considerable controversy about the fairness of their trial.