Terrorism: What’s Morality Got To Do With It?

25 May

ABC Radio National, that embattled treasure of civilised broadcasting, offered a challenging Encounter this week.

Recent terrorist acts such as 9/11 and the Bali bombing have been justified using moral and religious language, as has the West’s response through its ‘war on terror’. Political moral philosopher Thomas Pogge examines these justifications and whether they represent a moral framework that either side genuinely holds to.

You may read a full transcript, or listen, or download a podcast. Just a sample:

I see two main explanations for why terrorism is taken so seriously. One is that public attention to terrorism serves important domestic constituencies. It serves most obviously the news media whose economic success depends on their ability to attract the public’s attention. And it is vastly easier to attract the public to stories about terrorists and their plans and victims than to stories about cancer and cancer victims or to stories about traffic accidents.

Public attention to terrorism also serves the interests of politicians as a class, and incumbents in particular, who can gain greatly increased attention, authority, respect, and deference to claimed secrecy needs from their efforts to protect a frightened public against terrorism.

The politicians of some countries derive a further benefit from a major war on terrorism also in the international arena, namely the benefit that this war strengthens the political power of their country. To convey the idea, assume simplistically that a country’s political power is a function of three components: control over means of violence = military might, economic might, and moral status. Countries differ in regard to the composition of their political power: Russia and the US are strong militarily relative to their moral and economic strength. Japan is strong economically relatively to its military and moral strength. East Timor is strong morally relatively to its military and economic strength. Now, how much each of the three components contributes to political power depends on the regional or global environment.

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