Skip to comments.Lee Harris: Violence, Legitimacy, and the Terror War
Posted on 04/28/2004 8:33:23 PM PDT by quidnunc
In his review of Civilization and Its Enemies in the New York Times Book Review, dated April 4, 2004, Philip Bobbitt leaves the unfortunate impression that my book advocates violence as a policy that should be single-mindedly pursued by the United States to the exclusion of all other political considerations. Let me quote the passage in full:
" the shortcomings of Harris's approach are pretty considerable [t]he successful use of violence, rather the concord with a particular theory of justice, does indeed establish legitimacy, as Harris argues. Violence alone, however, cannot maintain legitimacy. 'The strongest man is never strong enough to be master all the time unless he transforms force into right and obedience into duty,' Rousseau wrote. Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wage a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the use of violence will in fact result in a safer, more human world."
To begin with, I have no argument with the observation that "violence alone cannot maintain legitimacy," or with the quote from Rousseau's Social Contract about the necessity of transforming force into right. But to say that force needs to be transformed into right does not give us any clue how this transformation can be brought about. Like the abstract observation that a successful business must turn a profit, Rousseau's dictum does not show us how such a result is to be achieved in practice: we may look at legitimate societies and recognize that at some point force was transformed into right, and yet not be in a position to know how this happened originally, let alone how the same trick could be done again.
Mr. Bobbitt, on the other hand, appears to believe that there is a routine formula by which strength can be transformed into right, and this he makes clear in the sentence that he uses to illustrate Rousseau's meaning: "Our own people, to say nothing of the allies we must have in order to wave a successful war against terrorism, have to be persuaded that the violence we use will in fact result in a safer, more humane world." (Italics mine.)
In other words, the solution to Rousseau's problem, according to Mr. Bobbitt, is to persuade other people that the violence we use will be beneficial to them in the long run, and that it will lead to a better and brighter world.
(Excerpt) Read more at techcentralstation.com ...
Imagine that you are ill and your doctor says, "You will most likely die unless we perform a risky and dangerous operation on your heart that you may not be able to survive; but, unfortunately, your only chance of a successful recovery is to have that operation." Now suppose you responded, "Well, doc, that simply isn't good enough. I need to be persuaded that the technique you use will in fact result in my complete restoration to health." What answer can the doctor possibly give in response? If the doctor is right, there is simply no way for him to persuade you that there are no risks -- unless, of course, he simply lies to you.
When there are inherent risks to an undertaking, such as heart surgery or war, it is apriori impossible to make an honest case that no such risks exist, much less that the undertaking in question "will in fact result" in a positive outcome.
If fighting a successful war against terrorism depends on our ability to persuade others that our actions "will in fact result in a safer, more humane world," then we should begin to make preparations for surrender at once, because how can we possibly be expected to provide proof positive that a risk will pay off as we hope it will? That is the whole nature of a risk: if you could prove it would in fact pay off, it wouldn't be a risk, but a sure thing.
The President of the United States, no matter who occupies the Oval Office, cannot be expected to sell a risk as a sure thing, especially in a situation where every possible option is loaded with risks, none of which can be calculated with any precision. Indeed, the main criticism I would make of the Bush administration is diametrically opposed to the one that Mr. Bobbitt makes. Instead of focusing on its failure to persuade others that its strategy was a sure thing, the Bush administration should be taken to task for its failure to emphasize the uncertainty and the risk that was inherent in the strategy that it elected to pursue -- and that was equally inherent in any other strategy.
It is upon this uncertainty and risk that both of our parties need to focus, since our only hope of success in dealing with our common enemy is to overcome the delusion that there is some magic bullet by which terrorism may be defeated -- a delusion that permits us to attack our leaders for their failure to find what doesn't exist because it cannot exist. If we win, it will not be because we planned to win; but simply because, somehow, looking back, we will see that we have won, despite, and even because of, all our mistakes we made along the way.
Lee Harris tough questions PING. Please, let me know if you want or don't want to be pinged to Lee Harris articles.
His articles at the TechCentralStation are archived here: http://www2.techcentralstation.com/1051/searchauthor.jsp?Bioid=BIOHARRISLEE
If you want to bookmark his articles discussed at FR: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/k-leeharris/browse
Lee Harris classics. If you have time, read these articles:
The Intellectual Origins Of America-Bashing http://www.policyreview.org/dec02/harris.html
America-bashing has sadly come to be the opium of the intellectual, to use the phrase Raymond Aron borrowed from Marx in order to characterize those who followed the latter into the twentieth century. And like opium it produces vivid and fantastic dreams.
His new book: Civilization and Its Enemies : The Next Stage of History