Causes, Excuses, Reasons, and Justifications

I’m giving in to my tendency to write about broad principles rather than specific situations, though of course I’ll have to use a few specific situations as examples. I’ve heard this issue raised numerous times in numerous different situations. It can be stated this way: Does finding causes and reasons for an event or an action constitute justifying it or providing an excuse for it?

We often encounter this in court cases with certain types of “justification” argument. Does the fact that a defendant was abused as a child provide justification for his or her criminal actions as an adult? It is very likely that the way someone grew up contributed to criminal activity later, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good excuse.

In politics I’ve heard this frequently in connection with the Palestinian situation. If anyone starts talking about reasons that Palestinians might be angry, there’s a quick negative reaction from supporters of Israel. Somehow we’re supposed to imagine that Palestinians are naturally evil and want to blow as many Israelis up as possible. If we find any reason for their anger and alienation, then we are justifying acts of terrorism. (Note that I refer here to folks in the United States, elsewhere in the world Israel is not so popular.)

Similarly when we talk about the current war on terror, any discussion of reasons why people might hate us, why they might be angry, and why some might go so far as to try to kill us. But the fact is that terrorists are not born terrorists; they become terrorists. This involves the education to hate that can occur in their culture, but it also results from their experiences or those of folks close to them. Like it or not, if you blow up people’s houses and kill some of them, a certain number will become angry enough to be driven to be more radical than they are.

The fear, of course, is that if we find reasons why terrorists have become what they are we will diminish the sense of them being evil, and provide excuses for their actions. This would in turn result in appeasement rather than vigorous suppression. But if we ignore the very real reasons why people become terrorists, we can quite easily design methods of responding to them that tend to produce more terrorists rather than less.

I do believe that there are people who have become evil beyond hope of our doing anything to change them, so they must be dealt with forcefully. At the same time there are many people who have been pushed over the edge, and many sympathizers whose position has not been settled.

That’s why any anti-terrorism policy needs to include both a diplomatic and a military option, and any anti-crime policy needs to deal both with enforcement and with the causes of crime. It’s easier to think of just one or the other; to propose that we simply hunt down every terrorist and invade and occupy every nation that supports terrorism. Similarly we can propose solely a diplomatic solution. Most unfortunately it seems to be easier to propose the violent solution than the diplomatic one.

Similarly it’s easier to propose draconian penalties than to deal with education, economic issues, and the quality of enforcement (equipment, sufficient number of officers, and so forth) that might prevent crime before it occurs.

If we use an examination of the causes to provide an excuse for evil actions, then there will be a significant danger. But we must examine the causes, and we must correct those that we are able, or we risk multiplying our problems as we try to solve them.

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