A debate that asks which is worse; an imperialistic government with "good intent" that kills many or Islamic radicals with "bad intent" that kills a few?
Recently, Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris got into an online debate over “intent.” To sum up their debate, the topic was whether intent matters over body-count when pertaining to American military action and actions of groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS.
The debate, which took place over a series of emails between Chomsky and Harris focused on whether Islamic radicals or the US Military were truly the greater evil. Harris argued that ISIS and Al Qaeda are much worse, not because of the kills they accomplished, but because of their intent to kill. Chomsky argued the opposite, and actually made much more compelling points.
To sum up Sam Harris’ position, he believes that while the US and the West has racked up an extremely large body-count over the years, these acts are ultimately to be excused. His point was that, while the US has killed or backed the killing of many, it was not the intention of the US to kill them all senselessly. His case was that the US is the moral authority, because their intent was not to cause slaughter, but to deter greater slaughter.
Chomsky has a different position. Chomsky, while not completely dismissing the “intent” position, argued that body-counts are empirically important to the discussion of US foreign policy. Chomsky’s point was that the way to measure intent of military acts is to judge body-count. While Harris believes that ideology is the major factor in this case, Chomsky has a more nuanced position.
Chomsky’s argument is that intent does matter, but this also has to be correlated with empirical evidence. While Harris seems to measure intent as the most important factor to measure in foreign policy, Chomsky makes the case that what someone “intends” can’t always measure up to what is accomplished. US foreign policy is a living example of this.
While the US always claims great intent before starting a war, coup, or tactical bombing, a large body-count always seems to be the result. Chomsky made a great point that Harris always seems to ignore. The Nazis and Japanese had great intent before invading neighboring countries, causing death and destruction on large scales.
Sam Harris claimed that intent is the most important factor, over all others in most cases. His idea is that groups like ISIS are worse because they want to commit mass violence and terror on populations, while US and Western violence is merely “accidental” in most cases, which justifies the action to one degree or another.
This is an old propaganda trap set by US foreign policy architects. The US is justified because we don’t “intend” to kill civilians when we act, while ISIS does. History speaks against this idea, as Chomsky pointed out.
How can the US claim our intent is always good when actions show otherwise? Never mind Iraq or Vietnam. What about the countless coups we have sponsored, even before the Cold War? Dozens of governments were overthrown by our will, imposing maniacal dictators from Pinochet to Mobutu. These rulers massacred many thousands, and did so with our blessing. So, we knew civilians would be horrendously murdered by thugs, but somehow this does not seem to count against us? How can you argue intent matters and ignore this long stretch of US history?
What about firebombing Dresden and Leipzig? What about the countless times we have condoned killing civilians in the drone war? To say the US has never intentionally killed innocents is not held up by history. Harris and his defenders ignore this, and suck themselves down the rabbit hole of foreign policy “exceptionalism.”
What Harris does, is fall into the same propaganda trap that so many Western intellectuals fall into. The West is by definition superior to all others, so anything done in our name is for good reasons. While “the other” is more dangerous because they are inherently bloodthirsty. Harris fanboys will say I am misinterpreting him, but my response would be to read his words for yourself.
Better yet, watch this video breakdown of the debate. If intent matters so much, then it must be measured with death-toll. Death-toll is an empirical way to measure intent, unless you are the United States, of course…