Terrorism and Responsibility

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of blaming the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and attacks like it on the U.K.’s foreign policy. The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Britain’s Wars to Blame for Manchester Suicide Bombing’; the normally more sympathetic Independent went with ‘Jeremy Corbyn Blames Terrorist Attacks such as Manchester Bombing on UK Foreign Policy’. Less subtly, Prime Minister, and Conservative Party rival, Theresa May claimed that “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault“.

To those who listened to or read Corbyn’s speech, these claims will have appeared at best uncharitable, at worst, dishonest. What exactly did Corbyn say on this topic? He said:

Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

Corbyn is quite clear: among the causes of terrorism is the U.K.’s foreign policy. However, he is equally eager to stress that this fact “in no way reduces the guilt” of the perpetrators of terrorism and that the “the blame is with the terrorists”, sentiments he repeated when pressed in a BBC interview after the speech (alternative link here).

But if foreign policy decisions cause terrorism, are they not to blame for terrorism? The question is a little tricky because being ‘to blame’ is ambiguous between a causal and a moral reading. Dissecting this ambiguity is the best way to understand Corbyn’s claim. Though he doesn’t put it this way, I think Corbyn’s claim is that U.K. foreign policy is (partly) causally but not morally responsible for an increased risk of terrorism in the U.K.

On the morning of the 19th September, 1985, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Michoacán, Mexico, killing over 5,000 people in Mexico City. The earthquake was causally responsible for those deaths. But it was obviously not morally responsible for them—earthquakes aren’t capable of moral agency.

Consider another horrible case. Suppose we are having a water fight. Unbeknownst to you, I replace the water in your gun with lethal chemicals. You fire at a friend, killing her unwittingly. You are causally responsible for her death. But, to the extent that your firing the chemicals at her wasn’t the result of negligence, culpable ignorance, or malicious motives, you are clearly not morally responsible for her death.

In much the same way, if U.K foreign policy (relevant aspects of it, anyway) does on the whole raise the probability of terrorist attacks (a claim for which there is considerable evidence; see e.g. here, here, and here), then this fact alone does not mean that the U.K. is morally responsible for such an increased risk, even if it is (partly) causally responsible for it.

It’s worth noting in closing that just because someone’s actions are (partly) causally responsible for an awful outcome, this need not provide sufficient, or indeed any, grounds to refrain from those actions. Someone may be more likely to be mugged in virtue of leaving the house, for instance. We might even list leaving the house as among the mugging’s causes. But given that such a person should not have to alter this perfectly acceptable behaviour to avoid such an horrific outcome, we may deny that such a risk gives the person any reason to not leave the house, except perhaps a merely pragmatic one. Indeed, it may give her a reason to leave the house—as an act of defiance, say (those who have thought about victim blaming in other contexts will see connections here).

Similarly, that a foreign policy causes the harm of increased domestic terrorism may not by itself provide a compelling reason to conduct that foreign policy in a different way. If the foreign policy is just and the response it triggers wholly unreasonable, then the all-things-considered thing to do may, like the person leaving her house, be to continue in the same vein, especially if there are no equally just, risk-decreasing alternatives. So any demand that the U.K. change its foreign policy can’t merely hang on the increased risk of terrorism; it also needs to consider whether that policy is just, and the other kinds of outcomes it causes. Luckily for Corbyn, criticisms addressing these other considerations aren’t hard to come by.


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