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UCL Festival of Culture: The ethics of fighting ISIS: Should we do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism?

By ucyow3c, on 13 June 2016

pencil-iconWritten by Sam Stockdale (UCL Arts & Humanities)

microphoneYou would be hard pushed to find a positive thing to associate with ISIS, but the terrorist group certainly knows how to generate a lot of interest, as we saw at this year’s UCL Festival of Culture session ‘The ethics of fighting ISIS’. Attendees squeezed in next to each other without a seat to spare. It was clear from the start that this would not be a ‘death-by-PowerPoint’ session and the audience were faced with some ethical conundrums.

Should we torture?

After immersing the audience in a crash course in consequentialist ethics (through an example of killing one person in order to save five – do the ends justify the means?), Dr Jeff Howard (UCL Political Science) threw down the gauntlet immediately with the first in a series of challenging scenarios:

You have an Islamic State terrorist in custody who has gleefully admitted to planting a dirty bomb in central London with the prospect of killing hundreds of people within two hours. He of course is not admitting to where it is. Do you torture him?

The question immediately divided the room.

In the ‘yes’ camp, a mother argued passionately that she would do whatever it takes to save her children: this is an evil person who lacks human rights. The ‘no’ camp questioned whether torture actually works, and whether it would be right to set a precedent that could be used against innocent people.

“Does anyone think that there is an absolute moral prohibition on torture – so that even if you knew that torturing a terrorist would save millions of lives, you still think it would be wrong to do it?” questioned Dr Howard.

One woman spoke up, but it seemed the majority of the room were taking the consequentialist approach – if you know he’s guilty and it’ll save thousands of lives, how could you not try? He has forfeited his rights.

Dr Howard cranked up the gears further: Would you torture the terrorist’s 5-year-old daughter?

Solitary confinementThe room shifted uncomfortably with the prospect, putting their consequentialism to the true test. This was, after all, a technique previously advocated by Donald Trump before he reversed his position amid heavy criticism. Not such a farfetched scenario as it may seem.

One audience member held firm and suggested it would most probably work.

But the little girl was innocent and she hadn’t forfeited her rights like her father had – would anyone be willing to seriously wrong her? I think this is when the room stepped away from the iron maiden –this just couldn’t be justified.

Should governments monitor our communications?

We were led on to our next ethical dilemma: our right to privacy.

Dr Howard shone a torch in the face of some of these issues; the UK Government’s Tempora programme, which taps into fibre optic cables under the Atlantic Ocean, extracting billions of our daily communications, our Facebook messages, phone calls, texts and tweets, scouring that data for incriminating activity. He even presented the concept of ‘Smurfing’ – no, not those happy blue dwarves, something rather more sinister – the ability of intelligence agencies to take over your smartphones and activate your camera or microphone. Think twice before you embark on another selfie session.

Mark Zuckerberg also claimed “privacy is no longer a social norm”. Think about what it would mean to not have privacy. Observation can affect our behaviour and it is a powerful form of social control. Would we say what we truly think if we know we’re being listened to? Would we have intimate exchanges with our partners if we thought a third party might be earwigging on the other side? The answer is probably no.

The audience were again mixed over this issue. Many were sympathetic to government data collection. As Dr Howard highlighted, monitoring communications through link analysis (creating maps of possible terrorist connections, establishing who is speaking to who) could have prevented 9/11 if this had been done at the time. That’s a powerful argument if true.

However, other members didn’t trust the government with our data: how can we be sure they are able to distinguish between terrorism and activism? Can we know that our governments are using this data for the right cause? As one lady pointed out, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s resistance fighter”. Innocent people could be caught up through indiscriminate surveillance.

We were left with the idea that perhaps the safer we are from terrorists, the less safe we are from our government (and vice-versa).

Should we have completely free speech?

The final destination on the whistle stop tour of ethical debate was the right to free speech. We heard some pretty horrific quotes from extremist hate preacher, Abu Hamza al-Masri (you may remember the hook). The Imam championed jihadi ideology at his Finsbury Park Mosque, encouraging his followers to take a knife to anyone selling alcohol, and wished death on the Jews.

Should this be banned?

“You shouldn’t have completely free speech,” an audience member commented, arguing that speech that encourages murder is a step too far. Many were inclined to agree, several shaking their heads in disbelief at Hamza’s comments.

But there were some who felt banning speech like this is equally as dangerous. Suppressing views publically doesn’t mean you’ll stop people thinking it. It will just force them into the shadows, driving them underground so they’re hidden out of view, making it more difficult to challenge or monitor. People aren’t necessarily sponges; allow people to hear all messages but criminalise the actions, not the speech itself.

That’s the idea anyway, but there are some dangerously impressionable individuals out there, some with mental health issues who can be brainwashed by extremist material. This was highlighted in last week’s news, as we saw the perpetrator of the ‘lone wolf’ attack at Leytonstone station found guilty of attempted murder.

That theme drew the session to a close, and it certainly made me think about the fight against terrorism in a whole new light. You could tell from the applause at the end of the session that I wasn’t the only one either. It was public engagement at its best, opening up our minds to complex philosophical, political and legal issues in a way we could all understand and connect with.

However, I couldn’t help but think, as I emailed a copy of this blog to myself from my home computer, whether the buzzwords included set off a klaxon at GCHQ. A government spook might now be raiding my Facebook account for further leads.

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