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Social Philosophy

Terrorism, and Education: Hume, Madison and Factions

Michael R. Taylor
Oklahoma State University

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ABSTRACT: David Hume and James Madison believed that a republic can secure domestic tranquility by discouraging the development of factions. Modern computer technology shatters these hopes, which rest on the idea that factions will not grow because great distance makes it difficult for individuals to discover that others share their interests or grievances. Today, technology renders geographical distance increasingly irrelevant to communication with others. If Madison and Hume were right about the effects of distance prior to the current development of computer technology, then we may experience the growth of factions and associated violence that Hume and Madison feared. Increased domestic terrorism made more effective by technologically developed weapons of mass death could be the way of the future. I contend that education can modify such developments by giving priority to Jane Roland Martin's suggestion that we adopt an educational aim intent on securing domestic tranquility. I revise the content of her proposal to include features of communicative rationality as an indispensable element of political dialogue. This provides resources by which factional elements can access and influence political discussion. If we are to enjoy a decent degree of domestic tranquility in the future, we must integrate potentially factious elements into the political process. To marginalize such elements, no matter how repugnant their political views, will merely serve to legitimate their use of terror as the only option available to them for political expression.

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I will be discussing terrorism stemming from the growth and flourishing of factions; not terrorism initiated by foreign powers, but as practiced by a nation's citizens against their fellow citizens. Americans know themselves to be vulnerable to terrorism, but this has often been thought to apply mostly to those abroad-military personnel stationed overseas and tourists or businesspersons on planes or boats commandeered or attacked by terrorists. After the bombing of the Murrah Building and the detonation of a bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta there seems to be less complacency about our safety within the borders of the United States.

Not all violent factious activity is properly described as terrorism. Factions may be involved in insurrection, rebellion, and civil war, none of which need involve terrorist activities. I take terrorism to be a term with a moral meaning, its content deriving in part from implied violations of the principles of discrimination or proportionality. The principle of discrimination requires that violent actions not intentionally target innocent people. The principle of proportionality prohibits violent acts that bring about more evil than good. Supposing that some violence in war, insurrection, rebellion or the like is justifiable, the two principles aim to distinguish acts that are morally permissible from those which are not. What gives terrorism its moral content is that it violates either one or both of these principles, and such violations are prima facie morally wrong. So not all acts of violence perpetrated by factions need be acts of terrorism. But terrorism is likely to prove tempting because factions are often too weak to confront governments and their forces head-on and so are led to target civilian populations containing many innocents.

I believe it came as a shock to many that the bombing of the Murrah Building was perpetrated by citizens of the United States. There has always been some concern that representatives of a hostile foreign power might undertake some terrorist activities within the United States; it was not, however, widely anticipated that citizens would execute acts of terrorism against their fellow-citizens. Such goings-on are common enough in many other parts of the world, but not here-not yet. This attitude, however, might seem strange if we recall that one of the most frequently and thoroughly discussed weaknesses of democratic governments has been their tendency to generate violent internal factions.

David Hume's insights concerning factions influenced the founders of the American Constitution. (1) According to Hume:

As much as legislators and founders of states ought to be honored and respected among men, as much ought the founders of sects and factions to be detested and hated, because the influence of faction is directly contrary to that of laws. Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other. (2)

These sources of internal division and violence have been of concern to political thinkers for centuries, yet in recent times we seem to have felt relatively free from this threat.

It makes our current attitude even less understandable if we recall that Hume thought democratic societies most likely to provide fertile ground for the cultivation of factions. He writes:

They are besides, plants which grow most plentiful in the richest soil, and though absolute governments be not wholly free from them, it must be confessed that they rise more easily and propagate themselves faster in free governments, where they always infect the legislature itself, which alone could be able, by a steady application of rewards and punishments, to eradicate them. (3)

Hume never expected democracies to be free from factions; in fact, he believed factions flourish best in free societies.

Hume held that the worst effects of factions could be moderated by a well-fashioned government. In such a government democracy will be instituted over a large area. Hume acknowledged the difficulty of establishing such a government, but believed that once established it has the potential for greater stability.

Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an expansive country than in a city, there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform without tumult and faction. (4)

Such a government is less liable to suffer from the activities of factions, according to Hume. But why should the size of the democracy be a relevant consideration?

In democracies which encompass smaller areas (the Greek Polis, for example), the people are in close and frequent contact with each other. And, Hume tells us:

Democracies are turbulent. For however the people may be separated or divided into small parties, either in their votes or elections, their near habitation in a city will always make the force of popular tides and currents very sensible. (5)

The close proximity of the people makes it easier for them to discover that they have interests or ideas in common. They readily communicate with each other and make the force of their ideas and interests, the "popular tides and currents," known. In democracies which rule over far-flung territories it is harder for people to come together and discover that they have the common interests or purposes that can form the basis for factions.

Hume also thought that the process of elections at various levels would have a filtering effect, diluting the more factious and subversive elements. He claims:

In a large government which is modeled with masterly skill, there is compass and room enough to refine the democracy, from the lower people who may be admitted into the first elections or first concoction of the commonwealth to the higher magistrates who direct all the movements. At the same time, the parts are so distant and remote that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interests. (6)

Because of distance and the filtering properties of the electoral process large democracies can hope to achieve stability and avoid the worst effects of factions.

All of this will be familiar to the reader of the Federalist Papers. Concerning the matter of elections and representation, James Madison wrote:

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to center on men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters. (7)

Madison, too, takes the electoral process to provide a filtering effect which can moderate the violence of factions by introducing a better sort of person into public life.

Madison also takes much the same view as Hume concerning the desirability of a republic that covers a large area. In discussing this matter he states:

Extend the sphere and you take in a greater number of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or, if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other. (8)

Here Madison is concerned with the development of a majority faction, by his lights the most dangerous. But what he says of the effect of a large republic on the formation of a majority faction, in terms of its being able to discover its strength and initiate united action, applies to other factions as well. Violence due to factions was a serious problem for the government that Madison hoped to see established. The potential for violence against citizens at the hands of their brethren was recognized and frankly discussed in the United States from the very beginning.

The belief that citizens will remain ignorant of common purposes and interests because separated by vast distances is undermined by today's technology, which provides a nearly ideal culture for growing factions. A technology most congenial to such growth would be interactive and have the capacity to incite and recruit, as well as be an effective means for organization and planning. Current developments in computer and information technology provide just what is needed to make a population spread over a large territory an irrelevant factor in matters of communication. The entire United States, and increasingly the whole world, is situated similarly to the ancient Polis concerning communication. Technology can provide the means for informing people of their common interests, and of other individuals or groups who support or share those interests. Given these developments the advantages of large democracies with regard to factions that so impressed Hume and Madison are at an end. The "popular tides and currents" are readily available to anyone caring to access them. (9)

We cannot rely on the advantages of distance and difficulty of travel and communication to protect us. Unless what is currently available to any computer-literate person is subjected to systematic suppression, people who have factious interests will find it easy to discover others of similar disposition. Factions and the violence associated with them could expand as more people familiarize themselves with the technology that allows them to discover that their particular form of discontent is widely shared. Who is out there, what they take to be the most pressing and frustrating injustices being suffered by themselves and like-minded others, and what they collectively might be able to do about it, is available to everyone.

Given the current situation, what are the prospects for internal peace and security? Legislation may help, but the cure risks being worse than the disease. Jane Roland Martin recently proposed the adoption of an educational aim that she calls "domestic tranquillity." (10) Her proposal is not specifically addressed to terrorism or the growth of factions, but her terminology suggests a way to approach the problem. Hume himself could be taken to suggest something like this when he writes:

Speculative sciences do indeed improve the mind, but this advantage reaches only to a few persons who have the leisure to apply themselves to them. And as to practical arts, which increase the commodities and enjoyments of life, it is well known that men's happiness consists not so much in an abundance of these as in the peace and security with which they possess them, and those blessings can be derived only from good government. Not to mention that general virtue and good morals in a state, which are so requisite to happiness, can never arise from the most refined precepts of philosophy or even the severest injunctions of religion, but must proceed entirely from the virtuous education of youth, the effect of wise laws and institutions. (11)

I think it useful to follow Hume's idea here, even though for us the term "education" probably has a narrower meaning, suggesting primarily the activities of the school.

For Hume, "education" had to do with the arrangement, by means of tradition, government and law, of all of the institutions affecting the upbringing of youth, and not merely with the activities of a single agency, the school. Public schools, however, are institutions in direct contact with the young; and we have some control over their aims. Religious institutions and families are also important educators, but they are much more difficult to subject to public control. If we hope to do something along educational lines to lessen the violence associated with the growth of factions, schools are a good place to start. Provided that other influential institutions reinforce what the schools attempt to accomplish, promoting the aim of domestic tranquillity need not prove impossible. Such an aim would need to be pursued with care, for it could be co-opted so that it amounts to mere indoctrination which more firmly establishes the ideology of the powerful. If this were to result, an aim to promote domestic tranquillity might cause more violence than it cures.

The aim to promote domestic tranquillity needs some substantive content, and I think that part of this content should include the conditions for engaging in serious political dialogue. Terrorism is often a form of political violence, and the alternative to such violence is discussion and rational persuasion; that is, the creation and maintenance of political dialogue. In order to establish and preserve a flourishing environment for such dialogue, certain conditions need to be maintained and promoted. These conditions must be central to the content of education for domestic tranquillity. Fundamental requirements include first, the endorsement of the use of reasons to justify or persuade, and eschewal of the use of threats or coercion. Second, those involved in dialogue must be consistent in their use of reasons; reasons that justify in one case should justify in other relevantly similar cases. A third requirement is that participants be recognized as equals, at least within the context of the dialogue. Further, the dialogue must be in some significant sense open to anyone willing to respect these conditions. (12) These constraints are necessary if serious, sustained discussion is to be nurtured.

It might be objected that this is too idealistic; that those who threaten violence or practice terrorism will be unmoved by opportunities for dialogue. This, however, seems contrary to fact. People who are familiar with and competent in political dialogue may become more disposed to secure their interests or address their grievances through participation rather than violence and terror. It was apparently the perception that dialogue was breaking down that led to renewed acts of violence in England by the IRA during the Spring of 1996, and implementation of sincere dialogue was stipulated as a condition for cessation of violence. The belief that one has access to genuine political dialogue seems in actual practice to make a difference, and we should learn from what gives some promise of success. Furthermore, open dialogue is required by democratic institutions; it is wrong by democratic standards to systematically refuse people a platform or a place on the public agenda. Marginalization is not a democratic process, no matter how much we may disapprove of a group or its political ends.

Another objection concerns the creation and maintenance of a forum beyond the school. Here the help of other institutions will be needed; it will count for little if people are proficient in dialogical practices but find that there is no public forum in which these can be put to use. How this might best be established, nurtured, and protected is a question that I must leave for others. It is worth remembering, however, that an important reason for supposing that, in democratic societies, the resort to political violence is unjustifiable is that participation in politics is open to all, and so nonviolent means of securing change and addressing grievances are always available. This point has force, however, only insofar as it is true that effective political participation is open to all and that the grievances of citizens can realistically be expected to receive a public hearing. Insofar as such claims are mere rhetoric, with little or no substance to them, some citizens may be tempted to use other, perhaps violent, means to secure the attention of the public; and it will be difficult to substantiate the claim that the use of such means is unjustifiable. This is a strong reason in favor of developing a public forum open to all.

I think that what I have suggested is a move in the right direction; it could increase participation in democratic politics, which in itself is a worthy goal. If political dialogue is valuable to us, we ought to make that clear and nurture the capacities that sustain it. Of course, much more than this will be needed; terrorism born of faction is not the only kind or terrorism. In a recent essay Walter Laqueur claims that terrorism is up-to-date concerning matters of diversity. We have the old political divisions, and now those due to ethnic hatreds, those with cultish ideologies, and the programs of fanatical millenarians. And, Laqueur adds, we can expect the terrorists to change their ways in the future:

In the future terrorists will be individuals or like-minded people working in very small groups, on the pattern of the technology-hating Unibomber who apparently worked alone sending out parcel bombs over two decades, or the perpetrators of the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. (13)

The weapons can also be expected to change as chemical, biological, and other up-to-date weapons are added to the terrorist's arsenal. Some, indeed, have already been used.

There is nothing on the horizon that promises the eradication of terrorism. Better education for domestic tranquillity can perhaps help, but it is not a cure; those motivated by end-of-the-world apocalyptic convictions, for example, will be unmoved by opportunities for political dialogue. Indeed, part of Laqueur's point seems to be that access to political dialogue is unlikely to have much effect on those groups not motivated by political aspirations. But these are poor reasons for refusing to do what we can, and cults and millenarians might not find it so easy to recruit members for their causes if people had more of a sense of political effectiveness. Such a sense of effectiveness might reduce feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that induce despair and entice people to join the groups that Laqueur discusses. While I agree that more will be needed if we are to successfully combat the violence associated with terrorism, my proposal is, I maintain, a modest step in the right direction.

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(1) Morton White, Philosophy, The Federalist, and the Constitution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) p.p. 68-71. See White's discussion of the influence of Hume on Madison. White credits Douglas Adair with the discovery of the similarities between Hume's "Of Parties in General" and Madison's Federalist Number 10. See Douglas Adair, Fame and the Founding Fathers, ed. Trevor Colburn, (New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1974), p. 105.

(2) David Hume, Political Essays, Charles W. Hendel, ed. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company., Inc., 1953), 77-8.

(3) Ibid, 78.

(4) Ibid. 157.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid, 158.

(7) Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, The Federalist Papers, (New York: Mentor Books, 1961) p. 82

(8) Ibid, p. 83.

(9) The use of computer information technology by militia and patriot groups is attested to by the Spring 1997 Intelligence Report, Issue 86, of Klanwatch, a project of The Southern Poverty Law Center, p. 7: "Like their allies in the white supremicist movement, Patriot groups use the internet to broadcast their message and seek recruits among alienated Americans. Extremists are publicizing upcoming events on their World Wide Web pages, peddling conspiracy theories in Usenet discussion groups and sharing intelligence through electronic mail networks." The report identifies several websites and newsgroups in use by patriot and militia organizations.

(10) Jane Roland Martin, "Education for Domestic Tranquility" in Critical Conversations in Philosophy of Education, Wendy Kohli, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1995) p.p. 45-54.

(11) Hume, Political Essays, p. 77.

(12) Conditions on political communication and dialogue have received wide discussion by political theorists, and the ones I propose here are those developed by Bruce Ackerman in Social Justice and the Liberal State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), p.p. 3-30.

(13) Walter Laqueur, "Postmodern Terrorism" in Foreign Affairs, vol. 75, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 1996, p. 34.

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