Monday, March 3, 2014

The Kunming incident & thoughts on terrorism

It was pretty scary to hear about this incident from a friend of mine. I've been to Kunming - my Facebook profile picture used to feature the train station where the shootings took place - and I'm sure for him, as someone from Kunming, it was far worse. However, my opinions on the matter may be different from those of my friend, or of most people.

Below is a translation of a short article by China's state-affiliated Xinhua News Network, followed by my thoughts on terrorism.


Xinhua News, Kunming
3/2

Our reporter learned from Kunming's government news bureau that evidence from the scene of the "3/1 incident" indicates that this was a grave act of terrorist violence originating from Xinjiang separatists.

The stabbings by masked bandits in the public square outside Kunming's train station occurred at 9PM on 3/1. As of 6AM on 3/2, there have already been 29 deaths and 130 people injured. Police on the scene shot 4 thugs dead and captured 1. The work of investigating is proceeding with all urgency. The masses of injured people have already been separately placed in several hospitals, and specialists from all medical departments have gathered to best assist the wounded. The Kunming train station opened on that same night and all trains departed in uniform order, and Kunming is in a stable state.

The violent 3/1 terrorist incident has caused great damage to the lives, property, and safety of many. According to the relevant departments, we must with resolution and strong measures crack down upon criminal terrorist activities, to defend the lives, property, and safety of the people.

First, as someone who was raised on mostly conservative beliefs, this incident does seem like a confirmation of the idea that banning guns won't stop acts of terror. Like with the abortion debate, the only solution I can see for the gun control issue - other than a never-ending fight about it - is a recognition that neither of the goals of public safety and the right to bear arms is absolute, that they are conflicting at the margins, and that the debate should be about whether marginal trade-offs (e.g. the cost vs. the benefit of banning semi-automatic weapons) are worth it. This incident shows that no amount of gun bans can stop mass killings from occurring; at the same time, the number of casualties is perhaps less than would be expected if 5 organized terrorists were using guns.

I've been using the words "terror" and "terrorist" thus far, because it seems clear that what the attacks were intended to do was provoke terror. But I suspect that my normative evaluation of these words is different from most of my audience's. I think almost all people have pretty good reasons for the things they do. I don't think terrorists are inherently evil or even necessarily wrong. I think terror should be the means of last resort, used only when no other means are left - but in the case of the Uighurs, that may be the case. I assume their goal is to bring the world's attention to their case, and can their be doubt that in this they will succeed? Whether the positive attention will outweigh the negative, and whether whatever attention they get was worth the lives of 28 people, is hard to judge. But terror is a means, and to call terrorism inherently evil seems to me to overlook the seriousness of the motives that people have for their actions. The United States engaged in the largest terrorist acts in history - the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Does anyone doubt that our motivations were good in ending the lives of so many people? 50 years later, our interference in the affairs of other countries caused patriots of those countries - first and foremost Osama bin Laden - to attack us. We can mourn for the lives lost on 9/11 without having to cast down the motives of the people who killed themselves in committing the acts of that day as any less noble than ours were.

In this case, I think the real culprit, if there is one, is the government actions that caused them to resort to such desperate measures. Lest I be a hypocrite, I cannot deny that government too is made up of men, who have their good reasons for the things they do. But I think that governments, in the areas in which they are not restricted by law or public sentiment, have a tendency to twist people's motivations and make them commit evil acts. Perhaps the Communist Party has good reasons for subjugating the Uighurs - national unity, etc. - but in this case the gains cannot be weighed in the same scale as the loss of human rights. So, in the end I think we should feel sorry for both the victims of this incident and the perpetrators, and seek a solution that would make such violence unnecessary.

Update: This piece is worth reading on the roots of the tension and the ambiguity of the situation.

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