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The Impotence of the Kantian Republic

People lay flowers and messages in St Ann's Square in Manchester, England, placed in tribute to the victims of the May 22 terror attack at the Manchester Arena. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

People lay flowers and messages in St Ann’s Square in Manchester, England, placed in tribute to the victims of the May 22 terror attack at the Manchester Arena. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

When a young man such as Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, blows himself up, killing as many others as he can take with him, it is only natural for us to ask why he acted as he did. His behavior is so extraordinary, as well as evil, and so far beyond the range of normal, that we are inclined to seek for an answer in his personal psychopathology. Only the mad would do such a thing; and since he did it, we conclude that he must have been mad.

This is circular reasoning, of course, as comforting as it is useless. No one wants to think that a perfectly sane man, in possession of all his faculties, could do such a terrible thing, for then it casts a lurid light upon human nature, including our own. It is more flattering to human amour propre to believe that Salman Abedi was in the grip of some physiological disturbance that impelled him to act as he did.

But other types of explanation have their own problems, especially when it is hoped that they will assist prevention of future such events. Again, there is a natural tendency to sift the biographies of the murderous, mainly young men and women who act in this way in an attempt to find the one true key to their conduct. Then all that we will have to do to prevent repetition of such attacks is to place those who have the key characteristic, whatever it turns out to be, under close surveillance until the fashion (if one may be allowed in this context to use a word with such frivolous connotations) for suicide bombing passes—as one day it will.

Here, however, arises the problem of both the false positive and the false negative. It is extremely unlikely that any characteristic or group of characteristics will prove to be what in medicine is called pathognomonic, that is to say indicative by itself, or by themselves, of the condition, in this case of being a suicide bomber. The suicide bomber does not bear the mark of Cain.

Certainly, there are characteristics that appear in quite a proportion of the suicide bombers. Most of us have a stereotype in our minds, which (like many stereotypes) is not necessarily without any foundation in statistical reality. Thus we think of such bombers as second-generation immigrants who are in search of a cultural identity, who may have led a life of modern dissipation until, in a fit of self-disgust, they give up that life in favor of a kind of violent, arrogant and self-important puritanism. Such types there have been among them; but there are two problems with imagining that, by having identified characteristics such as these, we have advanced far in our understanding and therefore in our capacity to prevent further outrages. It is not that what we think is untrue; it is rather that we still believe, with Francis Bacon, that Scientia podestas est, that knowledge is power, as well in the human realm as in the natural or inanimate realm.

Any characteristic that is found among suicide bombers is likely to be found among many people who are not suicide bombers. The number of dissipated young men who turn arrogantly pious, for example, is likely to be a hundred times greater than that of suicide bombers. And this problem is likely to subsist, however refined the analysis becomes: the numerator will always be much smaller than the denominator. Moreover, surveillance itself will always remain fallible, however brilliant its successes. A friend of mine who works for the secret services assured me that there have been many more terrorist plots dismantled than the public knows about; but for most of us it is the plot that succeeds rather than the 10 or 20 that do not that counts. Only preventive detention for those with the identified characteristics of suicide bombers would eliminate the risk of any of them carrying out an outrage; but that would be to abrogate the rule of law.

But there is a second problem: suicide bombers do not share identifiable characteristics with anything like the regularity which might be useful under a regime of preventive detention. Their social or psychological profile can only be statistical; and since human beings are so radically unpredictable, no reliance on statistics will ever protect us entirely.

There is no final cause of any human phenomenon, of course: as the Haitian peasants say, behind mountains, more mountains. But there can be little doubt that a religious ideology, vile and impoverished as it might be, is an important cause of suicide bombing. Whatever the travails of Muslem immigrants to Europe, they are not objectively different in kind from those of other immigrants from far-off lands or cultures. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have said, it is ideology that makes all the difference.

When I learned of the provenance of the Manchester bomber, namely that he was the son of Libyan refugees, I asked myself a question that is now almost disallowable, even in the privacy of one’s own mind: whether any authority, in granting them asylum in Britain, asked whether it was in the national interest to do so. In all probability, the answer is no. The officials concerned probably thought only that they were applying a universal rule, or pseudo-universal rule, that in the name of humanity all political refugees (as Salman Abedi’s parents were) have an automatic right of asylum. And if they, the officials, were to be criticised, they would no doubt reply that there were a thousand, or five thousand, refugees for every suicide bomber, and that therefore the admission of Salman Abedi’s parents was a risk that had, on humanitarian grounds, to be taken.

I doubt whether many citizens, in their hearts, would agree with this, even those who are favorably disposed to the principle of asylum. Since it is not true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (the Abedis were enemies of Muammar Gaddafi, at that stage an enemy of the West), or that the granting of asylum necessarily makes one grateful to one’s hosts (reflections on the career of the Ayatolla Khomeini might have taught us that), discrimination among and between asylum-seekers is in accordance with that now unspeakable thing, the national interest.

Reader Discussion

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on May 26, 2017 at 10:21:10 am

Helpful piece, as always, and thank you. But in the quote from Bacon, perhaps "potestas", was intended rather than "podestas." Might perhaps have gotten mixed up, in editing, with an Italian term? It's a nit, I know...

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aez
on May 26, 2017 at 12:09:08 pm

A fascinating debate: An essay consisting in the first 7.5 paragraphs (ending at “behind mountains, more mountains”), and a contrary essay consisting in the remainder. Together, they illustrate the tension the roils within so many of us.

But there can be little doubt that a religious ideology, vile and impoverished as it might be, is an important cause of suicide bombing.

What conclusions should we draw about the vile and impoverished religious ideologies that drove people to plant bombs among civilians during The Troubles? Would we advocate excluding people from the UK who share those religious affiliations?

The officials concerned probably thought only that they were applying a universal rule, or pseudo-universal rule, that in the name of humanity all political refugees (as Salman Abedi’s parents were) have an automatic right of asylum.

Here, Dalrymple falls into speculation. Fortunately facts are available. Unfortunately, they're grim.

Anyone who imagines that the UK has a policy that “all political refugees … have an automatic right to asylum” has a wildly optimistic understanding about the number of refugees in the world, and of the UK’s policies. In March 2016 the UN estimated the number of refugees from Syrian alone exceeded six million. The UK has agreed to take in 20,000—and hasn’t yet done so.

The UK’s delay reflects the fact that refugees do NOT have an automatic right to asylum; they gain asylum only at the sufferance of the host country, and then only after the host's vetting process. According to the Guardian:

Theresa May is already way past [Donald Trump in this regard]. When David Cameron pledged Britain to take 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees May insisted that the country would not take part in a UNHCR-run scheme. Instead, Britain set up a separate programme in which refugees nominated by the agency are vetted by Home Office officials.

May wants to go much further. In her party conference speech in October 2015, amid the world’s worst refugee crisis since the second world war, she outlined a new asylum strategy under which only temporary protection would be given to all but the world’s most vulnerable refugees. She said she was keen to see the international legal definition of a refugee made much stricter

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the UK has something similar to the US’s 20-step refugee vetting process that was in effect during the Obama Administration.

If anyone were sincerely interested in learning about the ease with which Syrian refugees enter the UK, the BBC is happy to oblige.

And if they, the officials, were to be criticized, they would no doubt reply that there were a thousand, or five thousand, refugees for every suicide bomber, and that therefore the admission of Salman Abedi’s parents was a risk that had, on humanitarian grounds, to be taken.

I doubt whether many citizens, in their hearts, would agree with this, even those who are favorably disposed to the principle of asylum.

Perhaps so. But why not?

Yup, a bomber killed 22 people, and wounded many more. But the policy that let him do this also saved thousands—people who are now UK citizens, no different than Dalrymple. So why should we value the welfare of the 22 over the welfare of thousands of fellow citizens?

That’s a serious question. I welcome serious answers.

[D]iscrimination among and between asylum-seekers is in accordance with that now unspeakable thing, the national interest.

As we've discussed, that the UK does discriminate, rigorously. But more to the point, what kind of discrimination does Dalrymple suggest? How exactly would we discriminate to determine which refugees will eventually have children that may eventually reject the norms of their parents and become terrorists?

Let me acknowledge Dalrymple for articulating thoughts that I suspect many people share—even as he notes that articulating these thoughts violates social taboos. I hope we do not let taboos keep us from scrutinizing these thoughts, and our own hearts. Likewise, I hope we don’t let unexplored tribalism overrule reason.

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nobody.really
on May 26, 2017 at 13:45:50 pm

Whose "unexplored tribalism"? - The Brits, (as you assert) or the "the norms of their parents:, such *norms* quite often standing in contradistinction to the norms of the adopted country. How often have we found that the parents engendered the "disaffection", if not the terrorist impulse.

BTW: and who are you to be so dismissive of the 22? would you care to be included in the "22" if only to establish your bona fides as an advanced thinker?

Ultimately, choices must be made. As we cannot accept everyone, it is required that we do DISCRIMINATE. The real question is, "HOW will we discriminate"

BTW2: This can only be done once we recognize that there is no universal right of asylum / immigration.

BTW3: In the case of "The Troubles" a rather strong argument may be made that it was politically / economically based rather than inspired by a need to spread the word of Allah! (That is not to excuse the horrors of the IRA).

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gabe
on May 26, 2017 at 14:07:16 pm

What is amusing, in a dark sort of way, is to hear people blame acts like this on Western intervention in the Islamic world. Of course, Arabs like the bomber's parents, all over Europe, were demanding that the West intervene in Libya to depose Qaddafi. Which Obama, Hillary, Cameron, Hollande, et al., obediently did, with barely a thought to what would come after. As the saying goes, damned if we do, damned if we don't.

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djf
on May 26, 2017 at 14:07:24 pm

UPDATE: FILM AT 11:00:

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2017/05/the-4th-circuits-travel-ban-decision-an-affront-to-the-rule-of-law.php

It would appear that all those "advanced thinkers" need not fear. So long as The Trumpster is President, there will be NO discrimination - so sayeth the 4th Circuit. Then again, the court did allow that if SOMEONE other than The Trumpster was President, that person could discriminate.

HEY GUYS: I TOLD you so when The Trumpster FAILED to contest the original ruling out of Seattle. It is now permissible, in fact, de riguer, to consider campaing speeches NOT the text.
Hey , would you consider this an *interpretive rule*

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gabe
on May 26, 2017 at 14:53:29 pm

“the norms of their parents”: such *norms* quite often standing in contradistinction to the norms of the adopted country.

Uh … yeah, quite often. And then, quite often not.

But as Dalrymple observed, Salman Abedi fell into the pattern of “second-generation immigrants who are in search of a cultural identity, who may have led a life of modern dissipation until, in a fit of self-disgust, they give up that life in favor of a kind of violent, arrogant and self-important puritanism.” In other words, his parent’s norms were pretty much irrelevant; Salman Abedi made a radical change from his prior life when he chose to become a terrorist.

But if that’s his pattern—and so far, that's how it looks--then it would be pointless to try to subject refugees to “extreme vetting” in order to determine which of them will, someday, choose to have kids that will, someday, reject their upbringing and become a terrorist.

Look, Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb that killed 168 and injured 600+. Does anyone imagine that we could have stopped that attack if only we had scrutinized his parents before little Timmy was born? It’s equally implausible to think that any change to the refugee process could have anticipated Abedi’s actions.

Yup, a bomber killed 22 people, and wounded many more. But the policy that let him do this also saved thousands BTW: and who are you to be so dismissive of the 22?

Who are you to be so dismissive of the thousands?

Welcome to the world of public policy, where choices have costs as well as benefits.

Ultimately, choices must be made. As we cannot accept everyone, it is required that we do DISCRIMINATE. The real question is, “HOW will we discriminate.”

BTW2: This can only be done once we recognize that there is no universal right of asylum / immigration.

Uh … yeah. See the part where I wrote, “refugees do NOT have an automatic right to asylum; they gain asylum only at the sufferance of the host country, and then only after the host’s vetting process”? That’s what that means. And that’s why I included the lengthy discussion, with multiple links, about the vetting process.

BTW3: In the case of “The Troubles” a rather strong argument may be made that it was politically / economically based rather than inspired by a need to spread the word of Allah! (That is not to excuse the horrors of the IRA).

Or the Irish National Liberation Army. Or the Ulster Volunteer Force. Or the Ulster Defence Association. Or the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary.

True, there is an argument that The Troubles were driven by politics and economics—and that terrorism is driven by politics and economics. Just as you can say that terrorists are driven by their faith—as you can say about the participants in The Troubles.

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nobody.really
on May 27, 2017 at 03:37:54 am

From here in new zealand my heart goes out to any Brits suffering through this.

I do not wish to sound insensitive, but when the love fest is over the hard questions will have to be asked. This was a preventable disaster. How on earth can these people visit middle eastern and terrorist states moving back and forward across boarders with impunity seemingly without monitoring.

The once brilliant UK security services seem to have let Britain down terribly. This has implications for all countries. Are all our security services this slack?

The police and security services seem to be still focusing internally thinking they can prevent attacks without looking outward. Hopefully now everyone going to or coming from these countries is being put on a detailed security database even if they transited through less risky countries.

Theodore predicted this 10 years ago in his comments on the aftermath of the Blair years and the fact that Brits pay high taxes and are continuously under surveillance but are no safer.

The other issue is the obsessive focus on religion. Like always it is about political and economic power. The terror organisations are using the reinvention of a distorted culture/religion to recruit disturbed people as canon fodder to do their dirty work. They are involved in an undemocratic power grab, not a religious war.

Democratic countries must stand up to this. The western world has weakened itself by not taking this seriously, giving too much ground, and assuming with religious ferver they can prevent these attacks just by preventing nuts getting access to the materials they need.

The overwhelming message of the aftermath will be that this was a preventable tragedy if international and national surveillance and databases had been doing their job properly.

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Kevin
on May 27, 2017 at 09:00:43 am

Thank you so much for this thoughtful wrestling. Thanks also to the commenters above. This is serious, important stuff. We better get a handle on it before things descend into a Balkans-level mess.

One small point of difference - I wish the author had chosen a more thoughtful descriptor than "a kind of violent, arrogant and self-important puritanism."

Having read the puritans fairly extensively, I don't see any kind of parallel. The puritans promoted and focused on persuasion, conversion of hearts and minds, of those who did not share their worldview. The puritans are perhaps the most diametrically opposite example of those who would promote self importance or arrogance. Being human, they would have been the first to admit to succumbing to arrogance and self-importance from time to time. And recognizing this, they would have put a big bullseye on it when they meditated on their life-direction. Check-Reflect-Adjust was a huge deal in their way of thinking. Seeing arrogance and self importance in the mirror would have quickly turned their focus to metanoia - repentance - and how to go a different way. Metanoia, not gunpowder, fists, or sharp objects.

Those murdering savages from Islamism hold nothing in common with the puritans, who had an indispensable role in forming the liberty and tolerance and productivity that we now enjoy.

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Scott
on May 27, 2017 at 10:21:27 am

UPDATE 2;

23,000 jihadis in the UK

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/huge-scale-of-terror-threat-revealed-uk-home-to-23-000-jihadists-3zvn58mhq

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gabe
on May 27, 2017 at 10:32:48 am

",,,made a radical change..." according to nobody.

Then there is this wherein we learn that the British government "funded" the miscreant who HAD NOT worked or attended school but received student monies. Hmmm, that previous life was, perhaps, not so radically different?

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2017/05/british-government-funded-manchester-bomber.php

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gabe
on May 27, 2017 at 12:59:47 pm

Gabe, we’re trying to have a serious public policy discussion here. If that’s of interest to you, you’re welcome to participate; if not, then not.

1. Dalrymple said, “[D]iscrimination among and between asylum-seekers is in accordance with that now unspeakable thing, the national interest.”

I replied, “[T]he UK does discriminate, rigorously. But more to the point, what kind of discrimination does Dalrymple suggest? How exactly would we discriminate to determine which refugees will eventually have children that may eventually reject the norms of their parents and become terrorists?”

This strikes me as irrefutable: You can’t judge someone based on what you speculate an unborn child might do. And thus far no one has refuted it. But you keep hinting that you can refute it—without ever quite doing so. In your latest effort, you provide a link allegedly demonstrating that “the British government ‘funded’ the miscreant who HAD NOT worked or attended school but received student monies. Hmmm, that previous life was, perhaps, not so radically different?”

Not so radically different than what? If you are suggesting that we could have been able to predict his behavior based on scrutinizing the asylum application of his parents before he was born, you’re doing a lousy job of it. And if you aren’t, then you’re missing the point of the discussion.

2. As a separate matter, let’s consider the Powerline editorial you cite: It argues that the Manchester bomber received government aid, and that assistance helped him in his future efforts. This may well be true, although the author acknowledges that the bomber may well have received funding from elsewhere, too. And sure, maybe the UK could tighten up its student loan program.

But so what? If we documented that Timothy McVeigh had also received student loans, what conclusions would we then draw from that?

Governments act to promote the welfare of their citizens. Their citizens then go on to do stuff—some good, some bad. There’s little challenge in finding someone who has done something bad, finding some government program he benefitted from, and making a facile claim that the government program is bad. Heck, if we surveyed the population of any prison, I expect you would find that most inmates attended public schools at some point in their life. Proof that government subsidizes crime! A bank robber made his getaway driving on public roads. Proof that government subsidizes bank robberies! Look, here’s evidence that the German government suppressed a cholera epidemic in the 1910s that otherwise would have wiped out the town in which Hitler was living. Proof that government caused the Holocaust!

(Ok, I guess no one disputes that government caused the Holocaust—but not via the suppression of cholera; that’s the point.)

Bottom line: Nearly everyone benefits from government. Some people also do bad things. There may be good reasons to review the operations and consequences of any given government program, and to reform or eliminate a program as appropriate. But the act of picking out one notorious individual’s acts and using that as if it was somehow representative of an entire program is ludicrous. That is not how to have a serious discussion of public policy.

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nobody.really
on May 28, 2017 at 09:10:53 am

nobody:

1) My comment on "must discriminate" was actually not directed at your comment(s) but rather to those (an earlier essay) that attempt to lay out a case for "universal right of immigration." - so my bad there for not being specific.

2) As to how to discriminate: Perhaps, we ought to look at those peoples, those countries, whose cultures, traditions, practices are antithetical to our own. As an example, those who believe that Sharia law MUST dominate - not just in their own countries but in their adopted countries. Not unreasonable and not at all dissimilar from our policy toward the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.
This need not be cast in the light of "religious" intolerance but rather in terms of political compatibility.

3) We must remember that ours is, in a Brownsonian sense, a territorial republic (democracy); that is to say, that it is a result of a specific time / spatial circumstance and highly unique socio-political-cultural factors that may or may not ever be reproduced. Ought we not to recognize this AND ought we not try to protect it.

4) You lament tribalism - rightly so; yet, almost all of your public policy prescriptions increase tribalism (race, gender, etc). I, too, reject tribalism, while accepting Lawler's concept of "place" (a milder form of tribalism, if you will). I also recognize that the historically most potent antidote to tribalism was, and continues to be, nationalism whioch unites the various elements. This leads to the question: What do we do (or should we do) to sustain a national sense (properly understood - no Nazi crap here). One way is to assure that immigrants, who are here at our sufferance willingly accept our ways, our traditions and not attempt to impose their *political* systems, as Sharia is a political, not just religious, system.
Or shall we make a headlong descent into the tribalism prevalent in these backward societies by encouraging the (non-) incorporation of unassimilated foreigners.

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gabe
on May 29, 2017 at 02:32:14 am

'Only the mad would do such a thing; and since he did it. . . he must have been mad' is not circular reasoning. On the contrary, it is straightforward deductive reasoning, thus perfectly logical. However, the first premise is not true: it is not just mad people who do evil things.

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Caitlin

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