It isn’t always obvious.
Of course, a priori (that’s Latin for “before we know better”), we probably want to assume that blowing someone up is not the right thing to do. This position has among its many advantages the virtue of complying with Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to another.” Most of us would consider being blown up to be “hateful” (I don’t think that’s too strong a word), so we should advocate the blowing up of others only sparingly. That just seems like good sense to me.
But what do you do with someone whose business card leads with “Terrorist Kingpin” and who once posed for one of those Most Interesting Man in the World beer commercials that reads: “I don’t always facilitate acts of mass murder, but… // Who am I kidding? Of course I do!” ? What do you do with someone like that?
Well, if you’re the list-making type (I’m not), you’ve probably got a shortlist somewhere on your desk that includes the people who you think should be blown up. So what you do is you add that guy’s name to the list. Depending on who else is on it, you might put his name near the top. (If your list only has one name on it, you’re either a charitable soul who sees the good in almost everyone, or it just says “Trump.”)
If you’re not the list-making type, just try to remember the guy’s name, Qassem Soleimani, for example, as we go through the rest of this exercise.
That’s right: we’re not done yet. It’s all well and good to say “yeah, I think this is a guy who should be blown up,” but there’s a little more intellectual heavy lifting that has to occur before you actually push the button. You have to ask yourself this question: “Is the world likely to be a better place if he’s blown up, or is it likely to be worse?” Because however satisfying it might be to blow someone up, it can’t always be about immediate gratification, about doing what feels good. We shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger goal, which is a nicer world full of happier people.
So the most important question to ask is whether or not the individual in question is directly involved in doing bad things — not just bad things, but really bad things. (Pro tip: If the answer to that is “no,” consider reevaluating your criteria for picking people whom you’d like to see blown up.) In the case of our example, that’s an easy one: yes, Qassem Soleimani is, well, was, directly involved in doing really bad things. He was kind of a rockstar at doing really bad things. (One can easily imagine that, had TIME magazine realized that the window was closing as quickly as it was, they might have chosen this terrorist rockstar as their Person of the Year. He was that big a deal. Ah well. Missed opportunity.)
So we’re good to go? Can I hit the button now?
That’s “May I hit the button now,” and the answer is “no, not quite.”
Because it’s possible that there will be ramifications to blowing this fellow up that will lead to a net negative outcome that will create a less nice world full of less happy people. We can’t selfishly go blowing up anyone we think deserves it. We have to think of others.
Unfortunately, while it’s pretty easy to perform that first-order evaluation of inherent blowupworthiness, it’s sometimes extraordinarily difficult to predict what the larger outcome will be. That’s because human behavior is a complex emergent phenomenon, particularly when multiple cultures and cruel dictators with precarious grips on their rule are involved. We can guess, but no one really knows what will happen.
So let’s guess, using our example of the late Qassem Soleimani.
Will Iran launch a ground invasion of the United States? Probably not.
Will Iran engage in increased terrorism against the United States or our allies. Maybe. Of course, Iran does terrorism anyway; remember Mr. Soleimani’s business card? One can reasonably wonder how much underutilized terrorist capacity Iran has in place in foreign countries. One can also wonder what Iran planned to do with that capacity, and if precipitating an increase in terrorism is really more about changing the timing than the events themselves. On the other hand, blowing up someone as rockstar famous as Qassem Soleimani sends a signal; doing it without even talking to Nancy Pelosi first suggests a worrisome (if you’re an Iranian dictator) nonchalance on the part of whoever pushed the button. So perhaps this will actually disincentivize Iran, vis a vis doing terrorist-y kinds of things, at least for a little while. We really don’t know.
Is this likely to make the situation less stable? Well, we don’t know. The situation wasn’t actually “stable” to begin with: people were still being blown up courtesy of Mr. Soleimani and, however cavalier I may appear to be about blowing people up, I am not under the illusion that a world in which people are unexpectedly exploded is in any rigorous sense “stable” — not, that is, unless people blowing up is the default condition. (And I took a dim view of that in the second paragraph of this rather lengthy post, and will continue to actively discourage it.)
But is this going to plunge us into large-scale war with Iran? Only if we want it to. We can send thousands of troops to Iran and fight a long and miserable, and ultimately probably unsuccessful, ground war. Or we can blow people and things up like we’re playing a Nintendo game, with about as much human cost on our side. The human cost on the other side is non-trivial, but we have a lot of control over that… and the Iranian regime itself is not gentle with its people nor with anyone else.
So what’s the answer? Will the world be a better place, or a worse place?
We can’t be sure. It could go either way. I think the more likely outcome is that this will discourage Iranian aggression, weaken the Iranian regime, and nudge us on the path to a better world. But no one really knows for sure.
What we do know, however, is that a guy who is directly responsible for policies and actions that have claimed thousands of innocent lives, and who uses terrorism and the destruction of civilians as a political tool to achieve the goals of a tyrannical and oppressive government, will be blown up.
So this is one of those cases where blowing someone up probably makes sense.Published in