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You wont find a more soothing book
about terrorism than Trudy Goviers A
Delicate Balance. Although over the
past 14 months weve probably seen hundreds of books come out in response to
September 11, 2001, this one
is unique. Govier avoids the bombastic
assertions and expressions of moral superiority seen in so many of these
books. Instead she examines the
pundits claims and focuses on the questions rather than on some definitive
So what can
philosophy tell us about terrorism?
Govier takes the analytic philosophers approach and meditates on the
meaning of terms: What could we mean
when we say the perpetrators are evil?
What is terrorism? Is revenge
ever warranted? And so on for fifteen short chapters, each dealing with a
different aspect of war and terrorism. These are old topics for philosophers,
of course, but dressed up for a post-9/11 world. For example, the chapter Justice serves as a primer on the
issues to those without a background in moral philosophy. Govier takes a familiar approach in her
argument against retributive justice by using Osama bin Laden as an
examplesince a human can only be killed once, how could an appropriate
punishment be found for bin Ladens murder of over 3,000?
For the most part, the approach
works. The informal and conversational
style of this volume makes for easy and accessible reading, and is well suited
to those with no background in philosophy.
However, sometimes I found myself looking for more structure, and for
Of course, it would be difficult
for someone to write a book about 9/11 without promoting some view about the
proper responses to the terrorist attacks, and despite her emphasis on the
questions Govier does reach some conclusions.
Though she admits in the preface to being skeptical that there are
military solutions to most political conflicts, it isnt until the twelfth
chapter, titled Perspective, that Govier states her position. After looking at the options, and taking
into account the specifics of the situation, Govier cautiously endorses
military action against Afghanistan.
The careful line Govier walks may surprise many of her readers. However, Govier seems to know where she may
loose her audience on ideological grounds, because it is at these points that
her tone becomes all the more comforting.
A couple of chapters deserve note.
Govier argues the point that has been made for years by Peter Singer (presented
most eloquently in the penultimate chapter of his new book One World: The Ethics of Globalization), namely that people are not
more or less valuable depending on how far away from you they are. The overwhelming response to the deaths of
fewer than 3,000 is starkly contrasted with the ennui most feel about the
36,000 children who die every day due
to hunger and malnutrition. There is
some moral confusion when we focus on smaller tragedies just because they are
closer to us, when there are much larger tragedies that are just more difficult
to see. Goviers presentation of this
point lacks the moral outrage we see in Singer, and though her strategy
deemphasizes the main point, it makes her work less alienating to those who do
not already agree with her. Whereas
Singer often infuriates people who see things differently, Goviers
presentation of these arguments is more accessible and low key.
One of the most important discussions
is about the root causes of terrorism, which is covered in
Responsibility. Given the
unwillingness of the US public to address root causes, and the backlash against
those who attempt to provide explanations, this chapter is an important
contribution to the public debate. Govier not only looks for the root causes of terrorism,
but she also examines the reasons why looking for root causes is seen by many
as threatening. Govier identifies the
fear as a concern that the terrorists will not get the blame they deserve if
other background conditions such as poverty, ideological conflicts, oppression,
etc. are identified. An additional fear
is that the victim, rather than the perpetrator, then must shoulder some of the
Despite this concern, it is
essential that anyone who wants to reduce terrorist acts must look for the root
causes of terrorism. Just as scientists
look for the causes of natural events in order to control them, and doctors
look for the causes of disease in order to heal the patient, politicians who
want to stop terrorism must first identify its etiology. That this simple fact is so easily ignored
is perhaps the most frightening aspect of todays current political situation. For many people the fear of identifying root
causes appears to be overwhelming.
solution to what she calls the Antinomy of Terrorism is to see the root causes
as necessary background conditions which are not by themselves sufficient for
terrorist acts. What is needed in
addition to these background conditions are individuals with their particular
motivations and beliefs. Rather than
calling the search for an explanation the search for a root cause, which
implies that it is the sufficient cause, it may be more persuasive to describe
this search as the quest for the background conditions which are breeding
grounds for terrorists.
Even so, it
is still important to realize that these background conditions should not be
seen as themselves morally wrong or right without additional analysis. Govier notes that the freedoms Western women
enjoy would likely serve as part of the background conditions that motivated
terrorist attacks, but that there is no good argument to deny women those
rights. However, some of the background
conditions, such as US sanctions against Iraq, may not only be part of the
cause of terrorist attacks, but in additional may be immoral.
that people may have that Govier does not address is the concern that if
immoral US policy is identified as part of the background conditions leading to
terrorist acts, then the attacks of 9/11 should be accepted as a just
response. This concern, however, is
obviously unwarranted, because not only must it be shown that the attacks were
caused by some immoral act of the US, but that 9/11 was the proper response to
the immoral action. Such an argument
could not be defended from any plausible moral position.
A Delicate Balance is an appropriate
choice for an undergraduate philosophy course, and at any rate is well worth a
read for anyone interested in the specific issue of terrorism or the more
general issue of applied philosophy.
Though Govier may not convince you of the proper response to 9/11, her
book encourages us all to ask more sharply honed questions.
2002 Kristin Andrews
Kristin Andrews is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at York University in
She specializes in the philosophy of psychology and has research interests in
psychology, folk psychology and comparative cognition. Her most recent
is "Knowing Mental States: The Asymmetry of Psychological Prediction and
Explanation" in Consciousness: New Philosophical Essays, Quentin Smith and
Aleksander Jokic, eds. Oxford University Press, 2002. She received her PhD in
Philosophy from the University of Minnesota in 2000.