Diffusion and Confusion

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So once again someone has sent an airborne explosive device into a building that supposedly housed the “enemy” organization, and innocent people were killed and injured as part of the collateral damage.
And then it is discovered that the attacker had a “manifesto” of sorts that purports to explain the rationale for the strike. The four page “screed” begins "We the People..." and the full text can be found here.
What's that? No, no, I'm not referring to Joe Stack piloting his airplane into the Echelon building in Austin, Texas. I'm referring to a missile that recently blew up a house, its intended target, in Afghanistan. Along with whatever “enemies” that were eliminated, twelve civilians—including six children—were also killed.
But now that you mentioned the event that occurred in Austin, you bring up an interesting question: What's the difference between crashing an airplane into an IRS office building and delivering a missile to a far away enemy-occupied house?
I say diffusion and confusion—the diffusion of responsibility combined with ethical confusion—give the illusion that they have nothing at all to do with one another, but in fact they are quite similar.
Mr. Stack viewed the IRS as his enemy, and rightfully so. Any organization that is dedicated to taking by force the fruits of another's labor is an enemy of that individual. It is also not difficult to see that the IRS is the aggressor, initiating force against individuals in order to confiscate a percentage of their wealth.
All individuals have the right to defend themselves against aggressors, and to use force to that end if necessary. However...
Just who, within the organization that is the IRS, is the enemy? The agent assigned to your case if you refuse to pay up? The employee who presses the button that freezes your accounts? The armed gentlemen who break down your door if you refuse to respond to repeated requests for compliance?
Or is it every member of the organization that is the enemy? The desk jockeys, the IT staff, the accountants, and the office cleaning personnel? Anyone who draws a check from the organization’s store of stolen goods?
But then again, this agency is part of the government, and in our great “democracy,” the government is subject to the people. If the people themselves have acquiesced to such an organization, then the people cannot call that organization the enemy, because it is their very own organization.
Diffusion and confusion. Mr. Stack couldn’t figure it out.
Diffusion of responsibility: Everyone at the IRS is “just doing his job” within the governmental branch that ensures that every citizen contributes his “fair share.” If the organization were to be deemed illegal tomorrow and trials for all employees ensued, we would hear:
“But I was just doing my job.”
“I never took anything from anyone, so I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes, I put liens on property, but my supervisor told me to do it. I didn’t know it was wrong.”
“Yes, I assigned people to put liens on property, but that was part of our organization’s rules.”
“Yes, I was in charge of the organization, but we were put in place by the government, and so what we did was legal.”
In other words, nobuddy did nuttin’. Of course the IRS will not be deemed illegal tomorrow, and it remains a legal operation today. Nobody who works at the IRS thinks they are doing anything wrong. Which is a symptom of…
Ethical confusion: It is ethically wrong to take a non-aggressing person’s justly acquired property. Always has been, always will be. This is an objective ethical observation and is quite simple to understand, so much so that we make sure we teach this to our children by the time they reach kindergarten age.
Then we spend the rest of their lives getting them to understand the exceptions to the rule. Except there really aren’t any. A five-year old knows more about ethics than most grownups, who have hopelessly confusing and conflicting subjective definitions that change depending upon situation and personal preference.
Grownups even go so far as to invent words like “taxation” and claim that it means something other than theft. “War” is distinct from murder. Don’t worry, son, it’s a bit confusing for you now, but you’ll understand when you get older.
Oh, the kid gets it just fine. Dad’s the one who is hopelessly muddled.
Mr. Stack identified an enemy that was aggressing against him, but how can an organization be the enemy and not the individuals within the organization? Is the “idea” of taxation the real enemy? If so, can the agents of the ideology be innocent even as they carry out the unethical ideological agenda? What if none of them realize that they are doing wrong? Are they all to be excused?
So now let’s jump on over to a house in Afghanistan. It was enemy occupied. Who is the enemy? Were those inside the equivalent of desk jockeys and IT types? Organizational infrastructure who would never actually directly commit aggressive violence themselves? Is it right to crash an explosive device into such an occupied structure because members of an organization that has been identified as the enemy are inside?
But our government, like Mr. Stack, avoids any such hand-wringing over niggling details and relies on the limbic response. If you are identified as “Taliban” in Afghanistan, then you are an enemy combatant, subject to termination on sight. There is no parsing of the organization into guilty and innocent individuals. There is no consideration of which members may deserve to die and which do not. They all deserve to die. Thus the wholesale, indiscriminate slaughter of human life is justified.
And the innocent non-Taliban civilians killed collaterally are the “unfortunate but unavoidable byproducts of war.” It really should be enough to make anyone who calls himself a human being, sick.
So now who is responsible for these human beings who have been slaughtered? The soldier who pushed the launch button? The officer who gave the order? The general in charge of the army? The POTUS? All of the above? None of the above?
But haven’t the people in this great “democracy” acquiesced to having armies and wars? After all, these engines of destruction could not exist without the citizens funding them and tolerating them. Who really is responsible for the innocent people killed in war?
Diffusion and confusion reign here. Well, it really is all our faults, a little bit, some may say. Ah, but not enough to be brought up on murder charges for, though. How amazing that capital crimes may be committed, but since they are committed by a large organization, the responsibility for the despicable acts is diffused and no individual is actually held accountable for the victims.
You see, this is not murder, this is war. I’ll explain it to you when you’re older, son.
In Austin, an individual sought to strike against his enemy, but the enemy could only be identified by a three letter acronym, an amorphous mass of humanity where no individual is forthcoming enough to say “I am the one who wants your property and will use whatever force necessary to take it. If you have an issue with this, take it up with me.” The frustrated citizen decided to treat the entire organization as a collection of equally responsible evil individuals and took a wild swing at their building.
In Afghanistan, an amorphous mass of humanity strikes against its enemy, and even though the enemy is but another amorphous mass of humanity—it is treated as an evil group of equally responsible evil individuals.
But unlike Mr. Stack and his airplane, no one is responsible for any murder! Or everyone is! Just a little bit! Maybe! Whatever!
Let me let you in on a little secret: Murdering people is wrong. Always has been, always will be. If Joe Stack had survived the crash, he would be brought up on murder charges for the killing of IRS employee Vernon Hunter. Did Mr. Hunter pose an immediate threat to Mr. Stack, causing Mr. Stack to have to kill Mr. Hunter in self-defense of his own life? No. Therefore, Mr. Stack was an aggressor who unjustly took the life of another human being.
This is murder. This is wrong.
So go ahead and feel outraged at Joe Stack’s actions. It is not how rational human beings should attempt to deal with problems. If he had survived the crash, perhaps his fate would have been to leave this spinning place via the electric chair. His “manifesto” was an explanation, but not a justification.
But my goodness, can’t you see that firing explosive devices into buildings that sit thousands of miles away, killing people who in no way threaten the immediate safety of anyone outside of a 10-foot radius around them is the very same daylight madness? Children blown to pieces? Oops? It is mass murder and nothing else. Constitutions are “screeds” offered as justifications for unethical behavior. Don’t believe the hype.
This is murder. This is wrong.
Diffusion and confusion: Witness the daughter of Mr. Stack who calls her father a hero. Witness the son of Mr. Hunter who takes offense at this and claims that his father, a Vietnam war veteran—a man who aggressed against people in a far away country who never aggressed against anyone in the United States—was the real hero. Witness the many who call “our” soldiers killing people overseas heroes. One man aggressed against individuals in Texas, the others aggressed and continue to aggress against individuals a few thousand miles away.
I ask again: What's the difference between crashing an airplane into an IRS office building and delivering a missile to a far away enemy-occupied house or carpet bombing a distant mountainside or napalming a foreign jungle?
Ethics are universal. If people insist on making them subjective and applying them differently depending upon the circumstances, depending upon their personal preferences and ideologies, then they become useless. Human society without ethics will quickly perish, and the evidence of this imminent peril surrounds us all. The time has come, my friends, to drop the fiddles and grab some fire extinguishers.
Responsibility is an attribute of the individual. Groups are not responsible or irresponsible. Groups cannot diffuse responsibility out among its members. Each individual is responsible and answerable for the actions he chooses to undertake. The Nuremberg defense is a fail.
Still confused?
Go ask a five-year old. He knows.
POSTSCRIPT: click here

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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


winston smith's picture

the link under "Witness" is bad. go here to find it. ----> http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/joe-stacks-daughter-samantha-bell-calls-dad-he...

tzo's picture

Fixed in article. Thanks.