Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Exchange

CNN reports that Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, which hopefully will bring home two Israeli solidiers abducted by the terrorist group when it sparked the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Reports are sketchy, however, on whether the two solidiers are alive, and on the contours of the deal itself. CNN notes (accurately) that Hezbollah's top priority in these negotiations has always been to secure the release of Samir Kuntar, currently serving a life-sentence for the cold-blooded murder of an Israeli man and his 4-year old daughter. That this is Hezbollah's number one objective (they view him as a hero) is highly indicative of their continued rejectionist stance: bloody, illiberal, and properly banished from the realm of respectable politics.

As much as I want to see the kidnapped solidiers come home safely (assuming that even is on the table), I previously wrote that the release of Mr. Kuntar has be seen as a red-line. The sheer depravity of his act -- he shot the father to death before his daughter's eyes, then dashed her brains out with rocks -- is shocking even when cast against the entire history of the Israeli/Arab conflict. It is sickening, and the idea that this man will walk free again -- much less to a hero's reception -- is nauseating, not to mention, a banner around which those who thirst for continued terroristic violence will rally around.

As I have relayed in many other analogous contexts, it is ultimately Israel's choice as to how it wishes to mediate these tough choices. But if Mr. Kuntar is released, the global community must make it absolutely clear that the man now walking the street is not just a terrorist, but a uniquely sick and twisted individual who represents the worst in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel pathologies.

UPDATE: The WaPo version of the story reports that Mr. Kuntar will be released.


Unknown said...

Ok, I'll bite:

In comparison to other terrorists, I fail to see what makes this man a "uniquely sick and twisted individual" based on your description of his crime. Certainly a suicide bomber could have achieved the same end result. This is not to excuse either of these actions, and you could certainly argue that Israel shouldn't trade hostages with terrorists ever, but I think you're making a distinction without a difference.

PG said...

I agree that this is uniquely sick and twisted, especially in comparison to a suicide bomber, because of how personal this man made his crime. Smashing a child's skull against rocks and then crushing it in with a rifle butt until she is dead is very different from strapping on dynamite and walking into a synagogue. The suicide bomber doesn't touch his victims; indeed, he tries to maximize his blast radius in order to hurt people whom he can't see. The *consequences* of Kuntar's crime may not be as bad as the suicide bomber's, but depravity isn't a consequentialist concern. It looks at the act, not its effects. I could contemplate being so desperate to further a cause that I might become a suicide bomber, but the idea of holding a 4-year-old's body in order to smash her skull against rocks is so revolting that I can't think of any situation in which I would do it. (No, not even the ticking time bomb scenario beloved of the pro-torture crowd. If we lose NYC because I wouldn't smash in a little child's skull, them's the breaks.)

Unknown said...

First, perhaps you do not fully realize the nature of the damage explosives and shrapnel can inflict on the human body. I fail to see how such damage is somehow "less brutal" from the perspective of the victims.

Now, maybe this is just an aesthetic argument. "Smashing a child's head in *looks* more unsettling than exploding a bomb next to a child." But aesthetics is just that. Maybe the shooter who picks at the scabs on his face in the morning before committing his crime is more disgusting is than the one who washes with Neutrogena, but in the grand scheme, so what?

Or, to put it another way, if depravity is merely aesthetic, why should we care?

Unknown said...

Just to expand a bit, we're not really talking about *acts* that are meaningfully different beyond. We seem to be talking about squeamishness.

Allow me to draw a parallel. Do you believe anti-sodomy laws are appropriate if a large majority believes the specific acts they forbid to be... well, icky?

PG said...

First, perhaps you do not fully realize the nature of the damage explosives and shrapnel can inflict on the human body. I fail to see how such damage is somehow "less brutal" from the perspective of the victims.

Perhaps you do not fully understand the distinction between consequentialist and deontological moral judgments. The damage inflicted by an act is a consequentialist concern. The nature of the act and of the actor are deontological concerns. When we say something was depraved, we are saying that the act or actor was marked by evil beyond just a desire to cause death or destruction.

This is something that gets discussed a lot in criminal law, because often there are harsher sentences (including the death penalty) for those whose crimes are perceived as particularly depraved. For example, anyone who pays two guys to kill his ex-girlfriend so he won't have to pay her child support is doing something Bad; a man who instructs the hired killers specifically to slit her throat slowly, rather than to shoot her in the head, and helps pick out the knife to do the job, is seen as particularly depraved.

I think we are appropriately disgusted by people who derive pleasure from others' suffering, which is why even though animals lack legal rights, we punish human beings who deliberately cause animals to suffer for no reason other than the humans' enjoyment of it. (And we don't punish people if the animals in their control suffer unintentionally and incidentally to another goal, such as the pursuit of profit in factory farming.)

I think there is a difference between an act that is depraved and one that is icky. Urinating on someone is icky; raping someone is depraved. However, I wouldn't consider raping a corpse, so long as one did it secretly and with the intent that no one ever know, to be depraved because while the pleasure derived therefrom is abnormal, it is not depraved because it is not based on another's suffering.

Unknown said...

Maybe I understand consequentialist and deontological thought and think the former gets too bad a rap. Now, I know there are objections people have to utilitarianism, but if you think the alternatives aren't problematic you've another thing coming. For example, I could look at the position: "Prisoner exchange is acceptable as long as the Israelis do not release anyone who derived a sense of satisfaction from his numerous and terrible crimes" and conclude that the underlying philosophy is a sick one indeed.

As for your example of the man hiring his wife's killers, there is certainly a utilitarian distinction to be made when more pain and suffering (in the form of torture, is imposed). Likewise, laws against animal cruelty can serve the purpose of deterring sadistic behavior (which, unchecked, can of course lead to more suffering). I see nothing in David's or your posts demonstrating there to be more pain and suffering caused in the present instant. It seems to me that a sharp blow to the head is a preferable way to go compared to say, internal bleeding from a bomb blast. If you are working from facts not in evidence on this, state them, because right now we're back to ickiness.

PG said...

Your original comment was, I fail to see what makes this man a "uniquely sick and twisted individual" based on your description of his crime. Certainly a suicide bomber could have achieved the same end result. This is not to excuse either of these actions, and you could certainly argue that Israel shouldn't trade hostages with terrorists ever, but I think you're making a distinction without a difference.

I am pointing out that your inability to see what makes Kuntar a "uniquely sick and twisted individual" might be based in your purely utilitarian ethics. I don't object to preferring consequentialism to deontological and virtue ethics. But you seem quite stubbornly determined not to consider how people who do incorporate deontological considerations into their thinking might believe the man who repeatedly smashes a 4 year old's skull against beach rocks, then finishes crushing it with his rifle butt, is more "sick and twisted" than a guy who straps dynamite to himself, walks into a synagogue, shuts his eyes and goes BOOM. You keep talking about results and consequences even after I explained that deontological considerations in crime and punishment focus on the nature of the actor and of the act, apart from the consequences for the victim. There is a difference between saying "I don't adhere to Philosophy A" and saying "I don't understand Philosophy A, and therefore fail to see how you, possible adherent of Philosophy A, could make a distinction between two acts that in my Philosophy B are morally equal."

I am not trying to convince you that deontological ethics are superior to consequentialist ethics; I am simply pointing out that the former exist and are a powerful force in many people's conception of morality. If you ignore that and keep insisting that only consequences possibly can matter, you will find yourself talking past a lot of people. You had better start from the beginning and try to convince them that they ought to be utilitarians. However, I don't recommend that you begin the conversion process by saying that their concern about the nature of actors and acts is merely an aesthetic distaste for ickiness.

Unknown said...

What are we saying here? That I have an opinion that rests on different assumptions than David's opinion, so what's the point of commenting on his blog? That blog comments are pointless in general?

Fair points, I suppose.

Or maybe I made a mistake in writing "I fail to see," when I should have said "I understand how your philosophical framework operates, but it is erroneous; consider the following critique."

Maybe. But I consider David to be pretty savvy and generally understand where I'm coming from, so I don't think I am "talking past" him in this instance.

PG said...

In your original comment, you stated the opinion that there is no difference between Kuntar and a suicide bomber. At no point did you acknowledge that David's philosophical framework might drive him to believe that there is such a difference. Blog comments can be quite useful when they seek to convince the blogger that he is applying facts or ideas incorrectly, or that he has those facts or ideas wrong to begin with. You don't seem to have done anything of the sort; you simply stated your opinion that Kuntar is morally equal to a suicide bomber because they achieve the same end result. You did not say why "achiev[ing] the same end result" is the sole measure of morality. You appear to be arguing that we shouldn't even think in terms of "depravity," but measure criminality or immorality only by its consequences for others. In which case, the only people who could be seen as "uniquely sick and twisted" are those who manage to achieve the highest levels of disutility for others.

Unknown said...

We can reduce everything to first principles and argue those out for every blog post across the land, but I find that prospect tedious, and frankly, unnecessary, when we can concretely point to the shortcomings of the particular view expressed, as I believe I did.

But, more interesting than all of this, is a comparison of David's post here with his views expressed last week, namely that it's a mistake to impose a stigma on certain crimes which put them on a completely different plane of existence than other, mostly similar ones... David writes, seemingly in disapproval: "One of the things I've noticed with regards to rape discourse is how so many people want to treat it differently from other violent crimes."

Care to comment, David?

David Schraub said...

I think PG has the better of it -- but then, I don't think we should totally ditch deontology (though as a pragmatist I lean strongly towards consequentialism). The "aesthetics", as you put it, in this case, stem from a specific performative desire to instill yet more fear and dread into innocent people -- the direct victim (the girl), but also all of Israeli(/Jewish?) society. That matters. Context matters, state of mind matters, all these things matter over and on top of body count.

I'm not saying consequentialism is unreasonable, but your advocacy goes further to hold that deontological reasoning is objectively unreasonable. I disagree, and if some measure of deontology is reasonable, consequently it is reasonable for me and/or Israeli society to care about the mechanics of an act as particularly shocking or depraved beyond how many bodies it leaves behind.

PG said...

The stigmatization of a category of crime has very little to do with a description of a particular criminal as "depraved." If all rape is depraved, then judges and juries no longer could sentence one rapist differently from another on the basis of depravity.

Certainly there are problems in allowing these subjective concepts of evil to play a role in deciding punishment, particularly when the deciders may be driven by their biases against a criminal's race, religion, etc. rather than by horror at the criminal's lack of morality. But I don't think the depravity factor is inherently a bad one to include in sentencing decisions, whether at the domestic crime or international war crime level.