There’s a worrying tendency today to equate wilful acts of murder (i.e. terrorism) with deaths due to (culpable) negligence or remission. I’ve heard people comparing jihadi terrorism to 1) boat refugees drowning in the Mediterranean 2) civilian casualties due to Western airstrikes in Syria, or even 3) the deaths of Grenfell fire.
In a discussion on Twitter on the relative percentage of terrorist attacks carried out my Muslim extremists, Youssef Kobo rhetorically asked me to “name a single year where causalities by religious terrorist acts in EU/US outnumbered civilian casualties in the Middle East and North Africa caused by Western bombardments”.* A journalist of the Flemish newspaper De Standaard recently argued that the Grenfell drama is in fact the “deadliest attack of 2017”, which, just like jihadi terrorism, was caused by a “radical ideology”, namely Thatcherian neo-liberalism and its relentless privatisation.
This is serious case of moral myopia. Negligence can be immoral indeed, but it’s nothing like deliberate murder. Nobody INTENDED the Grenfell fire. Nobody deliberately trapped people in a building to see them burn to death (a form of sadism only a group like ISIS would be capable of). The Grenfell fire was not even foreseeable, strictly speaking. With hindsight, we can argue perhaps that the risk for an event like this was too great to be tolerable, and that, in light of the sufficient number of warnings they received, the authorities are guilty of culpable negligence. (But beware of the ‘hindsight bias’ here, the tendency to interpret events as inevitable outcomes of prior causes and decisions. Dramas like these are never “bound” to happen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias)
Regardless of where you want to pin the blame for the Grenfell drama, to call it a terrorist “attack”, implicitly equating it with ploughing trucks through a crowd, is a tasteless trivialization of terrorism. Intentions matter. It’s not a coincidence that, in terms of culpability and punishment, there’s a crucial legal difference between causing someone’s death due to “negligent homicide”, “manslaughter” and full-blown “first-degree murder” (with malice aforethought).
As for the civilian deaths due to Western bombs in the Middle East, it is outrageous to equate this with terrorism. There is an enormous moral difference between 1) trying, but failing, to avoid civilian deaths, or 2) trying, but failing, to kill as many as possible. The question if drone attacks and bombings are morally justifiable, should be carefully decided on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits, weighted according to probabilities, and the availability of alternative courses of action that have a more favourable calculus (less risky, higher expected benefit, etc.).
Sometimes civilian deaths due to drone attacks are indeed a form of “culpable negligence”, if you can show that the military command took LESS precaution to avoid civilian casualties than would’ve been possible, or failed to follow an alternative course of action that was LESS likely to bring about civilian casualties (but again, beware of the ‘hindsight bias’).
In any event, none of this even comes close to the deliberate murder of children at a pop concert, or ploughing a truck through a crowd of innocent people. These arguments are examples of what I earlier called “waffle-iron morality”, a form of moral equivalence which aims to show that “we” on our side of the divide are hardly better than “they” (terrorists/islamists). People who genuinely believe this, have lost all moral compass.
*In fact, Kobo wrote “were outnumbered by”, which makes the question nonsensical from his point of view. (The answer would have to be “All of them”.) As he clearly meant it the other way around, I corrected this for him. https://twitter.com/Youssef_Kobo/status/875838940384808967