In the last three years, international relations have been dominated by news of violent attacks related to the Muslim and Arab world: the continuous bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians; the explosive terror of 9/11; and the recent intensification of attacks on Western targets in Iraq.
On Monday, the moral implications of these acts were evaluated through the lens of academics, who drew on varied fields of expertise to explore recent developments in a panel discussion entitled, "The Idea of Violent Resistance."
With special attention given to addressing the ethical question of suicide attacks on civilians in Israel, three of the four panel speakers elaborated on specific topics of theory and then teased out insights into the arena of current events.
The event drew a crowd of 300 students, professors and community members, with attendees spilling into the upper deck of the International House auditorium. Presented by the Student Committee on the Middle East, the lecture was co-sponsored by a broad base of student groups.
The first speaker was Martha Nussbaum, a professor in the Law School. She attempted to frame the current conception of international law in terms of the Western philosophical tradition. She drew first on Cicero, the Roman philosopher who espoused the view that acts of violence should exist solely in the framework of a long-term plan for peace.
"To assault someone aggressively is to treat them as a tool," Nussbaum said with reference to Cicero.
Relating these ideas to the world's present situation, Nussbaum said that few clear conclusions regarding the moral guidelines for violent resistance could be drawn from the canon of Western philosophy. One thing that can be said with clarity, Nussbaum said, is that civilians are being abused "in ways that threaten life."
Nussbaum's comments contrasted with those of Nathan Tarcov, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought, who used the Declaration of Independence, a landmark document of resistance, as a baseline for discussion.
In his analysis of the Declaration, Tarcov balanced the idea that the document called for immediate action as a "fundamental statement of resistance" with its invocation of "prudent judgment." He said that the Declaration embodies the notion that all people have the right to resistance, but it doesn't demand that they actually act on that right.
Martin Kramer, the third speaker, repudiated the idea that violent attacks on civilians are legitimate. He rejected the relativism and contextualization that, he believes, often occur in the adjudication of violent attacks. To believe that the American or Israeli targets deserve to be bombed, he said, is to sincerely believe that the two nations are run by an "American Jewish cabal" of Likudniks that specifically dictate a policy of repression and hatred against Muslims and Arabs.
"All of you would find this notion preposterous," he said. "But in some parts of the world, you would be the minority."
Kramer then attempted to link the lack of public debate in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence, showing that a decrease of public discussion has created an environment ripe for attacks. He mentioned a case 20 years ago when Lebanese clerics debated the permissibility of suicide bombings, and said that this is a "debate the Palestinian resistance has not had."
Kramer's viewpoints were originally supposed to be refuted by Mark Wegner, a professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. But Wegner, citing personal reasons, did not speak on the panel, and was replaced by Northwestern University English professor Paul Breslin.
Breslin drew on his background in post-colonial theory to describe the work of Franz Fanon, the 20th-century writer who championed violence as a means of repelling colonialism and developing a new societal identity.
Rejecting the importance Fanon ascribed to violence, Breslin conceded that he could make little connection between the post-colonial theorists and the morality of violent resistance.
"Speaking as a human being to a group of human beings, there are different kinds of violence and these distinctions and circumstances matter," he said.