tom thinks

Diffuse Ramblings, 2001/09/24:20:16

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"There are no individualists in foxholes"

Or are there?
An insightful reader pointed out that the tail end of my previous entry on this topic doesn't make any sense. I think that accurately captures my state of mind.

I've written previously that it makes sense for Jews to think of themselves as "a people" because that's sure the way their enemies are going to treat them, and it would be self-destructive for them to think of themselves in any other way.

I think to a significant degree collectivism has its roots in a rational response to hostility, and I wonder if the nature of war is such that hostility toward another group qua group is a rational response to the members of that group being hostile toward you because of your membership in a group. There's an element of "being dragged down to their level" in this, but if the alternative is death, I'm willing to be dragged pretty far down.

My thoughts are slightly more ordered now, but far from fully coherent. My current belief is:
  • War can be justified in cases where a society is at risk
  • Killing innocents should be avoided to the extent that avoidance is consistent with winning the war
  • In the current case, there is no justification for killing innocents

The final point is based on the belief that nothing like conventional military action is likely to be necessary to win this war, and therefore killing innocents is entirel avoidable within the context of winning the war. This is a good thing, a conclusion that makes me so happy I'm a bit suspicious of it--it is really what I would like to be true, and I know I've fallen into wishful thinking before, as when I argued in '91 that Iraq could be forced out of Kuwait via sanctions alone.

I believe that killing innocents in time of war can be justified by the fact that if we do not win, innocents on our side will be killed. So the choice is not, "Innocents get killed or not" but "We kill some or they kill lots." This is the justification used for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--many more Allied and Japanese lives would have been lost in an invasion of Japan.

The alternative to war, too often, is not peace but massacre.
I wrote a couple of days ago how badly the terrorists had misunderstood the West. In particular, they have failed to understand how dogged our police forces are in tracking and catching criminals.

This is a war we are fighting, but for once the euphemism "police action" is actually applicable. I'm delighted by the focus on financial assets, and it is clear that police departments across the world are being effective in tracking down suspects, although I'm concerned that this will be used as yet another excuse to try to disarm the population by restricting access to strong cryptography.

Phil Zimmerman, author of PGP, will be interviewed on Slashdot this week. He was falsely quoted by the Washington Post as being wracked by guilt about the WTC attacks, whereas what he actually told them was that he still believes the benefits of strong crypto outweigh the risks, although this has certainly given him cause to re-examine his beliefs. Reading Zimmerman's remarks gave me to think a bit more on this.

Apart from a few cases where I have to use tools like ssh to access secure websites and servers, I am not a crypto user--I think the rational response to the possibility that people will find out what I really think is to tell people what I really think, mostly. But even I have secrets, some of which I'd really like to remain secret. I do this right now by not telling anyone about them. But if I had to tell someone, I'd like the opportunity to be sure that only that person knew. I have my reasons for this, and you'll have to take my word for it: they are good reasons.

But most of all, they are my reasons, and I can't even tell you what they are without giving away some information about what kinds of secrets I have.

Beyond that, I know that in the past governments have been willing to ignore all constitutional limits. Ask any American or Canadian citizen who was interned by their own government during WWII if governments are to be trusted. Ask the Canadian mental patients in the 1950's that the CIA performed experiments on with LSD if governments are to be trusted. The framers of the U.S. constitution thought governments were not to be trusted, and so ensured the right of the people to keep and bear arms, not as a defense against criminals but as a defense against the state itself.

Strong crypto is a powerful weapon, and like all weapons, making it a crime to possess it means that only criminals will. Furthermore, no one ever killed themselves (or anyone else) because they were just cleaning their public key algorithm and it went off. So on the whole, I think that a society that values its freedom ought to keep these weapons in the hands of its citizens.

That isn't what I started to write about here, though. My mind is not too clear just now. What I started to write about is that the Taliban are apparently announcing all sorts of military preparations (while U.N. aid workers, funded in no small part by that $100 million per year from the generous hearts of the people of the United States of America, are being told to keep off their satellite phones under pain of death.) The odds of any military action being taken against the Taliban seems to me, right now, increasingly slim.

So what will happen? Afghanistan will not be attacked, and the Taliban will claim that they have sent the United States running away in fear! It would be almost worth invading at that point, just to drive the actual reality home with a knife, but I don't think it is justified. Unless the U.S. and it's allies intend to rule Afghanistan for a good long time (long enough to teach two generations of girls how to read, at least) there seems to be very little to be gained by invading, and a great deal to be lost.

As time passes the Taliban are being revealed as a bunch of irrational, viscious and spectacularly stupid losers. I feel deeply sorry for the Afghan people, but what they need is aid, not invasion. It may be that the only way to give them aid is to invade them first, as the Taliban clearly don't care a pin for the welfare of the people, but that strikes me as a mission for another day.
There are good days, and bad days. At least that's the theory. At the moment there are mostly bad days and worse days. The law of averages tells me that someone out there is getting all my good days! I want 'em back, damnit!
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