After the ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, liberals have been quick to push what they consider the adult interpretation, empathizing with the culprits, protecting them from “Islamophobia” and laying much of the blame with the American government’s military involvement in the Middle East. So-called conservatives in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere instead demonize Muslims, turning the attacks into a very different kind of teachable moment. Liberals have feminism-fuelled empathy as well as technocratic interest in the facts, and so they call upon the United States and its allies to stop meddling in other countries, whereas right-wingers seized the opportunity to further dumb-down Westerners, reducing the conflict to a religious war between Good and Evil; Americans, for example, must be blameless, whereas all Muslims are in league with the savage terrorists who serve the devil even as they consider themselves martyrs for the true God Allah.
Lost in these exchanges is a logically prior question, which is whether civilians in a modern democracy could even potentially deserve blame or punishment for the deeds of their government and military. Putting aside the question of whether in the case of the 911 attack or the Paris one, ordinary Americans or Parisians deserve blowback, we should consider whether modern democratic citizens in general could ever, under any circumstance be responsible for their nation’s actions. Given the political and economic structure of such a society, are such citizens necessarily innocent of whatever might be done in their name? Indeed, we should reflect on what’s actually meant by calling victims such as those in the ISIL attack “innocent civilians,” as in “The bloodthirsty barbarians targeted innocent civilians in their cowardly terrorist attack.”
The Corruption of Modern Democracies
Before we begin, note the difference between direct and indirect democracies. Modern democracies are almost all indirect, meaning that the citizens don’t directly select their nation’s policies. Instead, they elect representatives who then decide how their country should be governed and how their military should be used abroad. This means that the citizens in question are at least somewhat removed from the high-level decisions that could invite international praise or condemnation. Also, because the terrorist attacks are supposed to be about punishing Westerners, I’ll focus on this negative side of the issue, although the analysis will also apply to the positive side, to whether the citizens might ever deserve praise for decisions made at their governmental level.
It might still look as though the answer were obvious, especially when there’s a stark choice between candidates in an election. To the extent that voters marginalize extreme candidates, such as bigoted xenophobes or radical environmentalists, the voters could logically be held accountable for steering their country in a more moderate direction, if not for any specific policy fulfilled by the elected representative. But because public relations has become something of a science, this account of democracy which likely informs the terrorist’s rationalizations is woefully naïve. What we discover in elections in so-called advanced democracies like the U.S. is that the nominees for high office learn to hide their actual opinions, to campaign from the so-called center so that they all appear moderate. The result is that it’s hard to tell the candidates apart. Their political debates, for example, revolve around micro-issues because the candidates are smart enough not to inflame the electorate with divisive rhetoric on the big, controversial issues. Indeed, those candidates who differ from the mainstream consensus are precisely the ones who are marginalized by the mass media and by public prejudice. The candidates who attain their party’s nomination and are poised to run a powerful democratic nation are always groomed by political consultants, their appearances stage-managed, their speeches and talking points market-tested, and their policies themselves more and more dictated by large campaign contributors who typically dominate mainstream thinking so that both the liberal and the conservative politicians end up governing as neoliberals.