Category Archives: Debate

Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.


Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi

Gun Control: You Can’t Test Irresponsibility

When people are careless or irresponsible, no amount of laws, ordinances, and guidance can help keep things like this from happening.


cartoon gun pistol shooting


Before I start this piece, I would like to take a moment of silence, or space I guess, just to send my condolences to anyone affected by the shootings at the Newtown, CT, school. Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children is a phrase used when a teenager dies in a car accident, but they really shouldn’t have to bury a five-year-old after something like this. Its just really tragic.

To debate gun control, their legality, and other gun-related issues simply takes away from the bigger picture here, 27 people are dead, including 20 children. No amount of senseless debate will take away from that.  Needless to say, people will debate this point and people will crave to be educated at a time when so little is known about many details involving this situation.

Around the nation this morning, millions of people watching the tragic events of Newtown, Conn. will begin to clamor loudly for heightened gun control laws.  “If there were better gun control laws, this would never happen,” is the one statement many, including my own friends will make. However, in no way, shape, or form would gun control laws have helped prevent this tragedy that took 26 innocent lives including 20 children.

The two states really involved in this, Connecticut and New Jersey (where the shooter’s brother lives), are listed as the 5th and 2nd highest. According to The Star-Ledger, Connecticut law has a partial ban on assault rifles and people under 21 are prohibited from purchasing and/or carrying handguns. The shooter, Adam Lanza, was 20.

Time and time again, people will continue to get their hands on whatever item they want if they so choose. Think about it, alcohol was illegal in the 1930 during prohibition yet it became one of the most crime ridden times in recent history. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug-related deaths have more than doubled since the early 80s, even with stricter drug abuse penalties.

“But if they just outlawed guns and had stricter laws, this could have been prevented.”


In 1996, as a direct result of the Dunblane school massacre, the United Kingdom banned the private ownership of handguns in the kingdom with two separate acts simply called “Firearms Act 1997 1 & 2.”  However, despite those heavily enforced laws, the UK still has problems with school shootings. In June 2010, Derrick Bird, a lone gunman, killed 12 people and injured 11 others during a killing spree across Cumbria, England.

Did these extremely strict gun laws, which were put into place 13 years before the incident, help stop the violence?  The answer to that question is no. You can have all the gun control you want, but people will find a way to get the items they need to commit heinous acts such as these.

I’ll speak for New Jersey (as I am a resident) and their gun control programs, listed as 2nd best in the country. In the Garden State, a rigorous six-month process is needed just to obtain a firearm purchase id. This background check occurs several times between state and local authorities, including a full criminal background. Even after getting the card, purchasing a weapon can take several weeks.

That explanation doesn’t even include special handgun purchase IDs, permit to carry and permit to conceal applications, which in total could take over a full year.  With all the hurdles of current gun control there is one statement that rings true.  You can’t test crazy or irresponsibility.

Admittedly, I’ve been shooting under the guidance of my father since I was seven years old. I’ve been through several NRA and Boy Scout programs that encourage safety and take many precautions. When taught right, target shooting (which I partake) is one of the safest activities.  In my home, bullets and guns are never in the same place, guns are checked constantly for chambered rounds or loaded clips. These safety precautions are necessary in order to instill that no one is injured.

Just search “gun accidents” on YouTube and you’ll find a lengthy variety of gun accidents from people that aren’t being responsible. Holding a pistol one handed is going to hurt. Attempting to hold a rifle with one hand is just plain stupid.  There’s no way to test for this sort of irresponsibility and carelessness.

Think about it from another point. Anyone with a driver’s license has gone through hours upon hours of driver safety and testing, yet, you still see people drive drunk and drivers speeding by on the highway at 110 miles per hour. Hell, we’ve all rolled through a stop sign at some point.

The main point is simply this: when people are careless or irresponsible, no amount of laws, ordinances, and guidance can help keep things like this from happening.

Regardless of your stance, 27 people have been taken from this Earth in what has become one of the biggest shooting massacres in U.S. history. No amount of debate will bring back those lives.

Prayers and condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy. May they rest in peace.


Photo Credit: Andorand

Should Citizens Have The Right To Bear Arms?

Is it sensible to allow citizens ‘the right to bear arms’ with little more than a cursory background check? Does an armed populace increase or decrease the murder rate? Do stricter gun-control laws simply prevent dutiful citizens from protecting themselves against potential assailants?


right to bear arms


On Friday 20th July, James Holmes, a 24 year old former neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado, Denver, walked in to a midnight screening of the new Batman Film The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora. Holmes casually took his place in the audience, his bright orange hair barely standing out in the theatre full of excited fans. Shortly thereafter, he slipped out the side door and returned a few minutes later dressed for battle. He was armed to the teeth with an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 shotgun and a 40 caliber glock handgun. He wore a ballistic helmet, gas mask, throat-protector, tactical vest and pants. Holmes proceeded to lob gas canisters into the crowd before opening fire and unleashing a hail of bullets, killing twelve and wounding 58. Holmes was arrested in the cinema car park at 12:45 am, approximately 7 minutes after opening fire, apparently without resistance. He had donned such complete protective gear that responding police officers almost mistook him for a SWAT team member.

Just over two weeks later, on the 5th August, Wade Michael Page, a 40 year old former US Army Sergeant with links to the white power movement, stormed into a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, shooting dead six and injuring three. He was eventually shot dead outside by armed police officers. He was armed with a Springfield 9mm XDM, a 20 round capacity handgun he had purchased just 6 days previously.

These two incidents have understandably re-ignited the gun control debate in America and world-wide. Should citizens have the right to bear arms?

[dropcap]YES[/dropcap]I greatly admire the pro-control crowd; their views come not from a desire to restrict liberties, but to save lives. This is the greatest motivation one can possess, and at first glance their reasoning is concrete: guns are designed only to kill and hold no other purpose, if you prevent more people from having guns, then less people die.This concept however, fails to take into account three important points that I will now address:

1.) The vast majority of gun violence worldwide is committed using illegally obtained firearms.

Do not fool yourself in to thinking that any law on earth can or will stop the appalling amounts of deaths, assaults and suicides we see every day – these simply aren’t committed with the legally obtained guns that gun control would  restrict. By their very nature, illegally obtained firearms cannot be prevented by the creation of laws; such laws only restrict those who choose to obey them and who use guns safely. Illegal gun trafficking is a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry and will continue regardless of what anyone says or does. Where there is a profit, someone will find a way.

2.) Gun-control has absolutely nothing to do with crime rates as a whole.

United Nation studies show that the most important factors that cause high homicide rates rest in the society itself; low levels of development, civil unrest, poverty & crime rates. Restricting people’s access to firearms does not stop them from killing each other; it just stops them doing it with guns. Surely our concern should not be the means of a murder, but the fact a murder has occurred in the first place.

Take Switzerland, otherwise known as the country with a machine gun in every home (see Wiki’s summary here). Despite the breathtaking amount of legally obtained automatic weapons in Switzerland, their homicide rates are less than here in Britain, where most firearms were banned in ’97 (and incidentally, since then gun crime has increased according to Home Office statistics).

To use the recent massacre in Aurora as an example, guns might have played a vital part in the killing, but if someone is truly hell-bent on killing a large group of people, they’re going to find a way regardless of gun-control: black market firearms, homemade explosives, high-jacked planes or mass poisonings. The true tragedy is that the cinema chain where the shooting took place does not allow people to carry their lawful, concealed firearms. If they had, then it’s possible that an individual in the audience (one trained in gun usage and safety like most legal carriers) would have returned fire and prevented many innocent deaths.

3.) Firearms are not just pointless “killing machines”.

Right now firearms are being used to hunt for food. They are used to control pests and protect the livelihood of farmers; as a small majority of the population will desperately attest, and a great deal will automatically and arrogantly disregard. Firearms have featured in the Olympic Games as a sport, bringing pleasure to millions of amateurs and professionals world-wide, never mind the comfort legally-obtained firearms bring to families everywhere as tools of self-defence.  This is not something to take away lightly. Guns exist and no governmental policies will deny that fact. Gun-control will not save lives; it will only restrict the personal liberties of innocent people who have a right to bear arms.

Mark Petit

[dropcap]NO[/dropcap]Some have found it somewhat incongruous that as a self-confessed ‘gun-fan’ and ‘weekend warrior’ with the Territorial Army, I should take the side of pro-control in this debate. So, before I get my teeth into this debate I’d like to make one thing clear – I am not taking an anti-firearm stance, merely a pro-control stance. Guns are fun. They are used in all sorts of legitimate sporting and cultural pursuits, however, this does not change the fact that they are ultimately an instrument of warfare – a tool designed to make killing easy.

This leads me on to my first point. Some may argue that as an inanimate object, murder is hardly the guns fault. It is, after all, the person who pulls the trigger. While this is a fair observation, it misses the critical fact that I just mentioned – namely, that guns are practically the most dangerous ‘inanimate objects’ in existence. Imagine for one moment that you wanted to kill. What method would you choose? Battery? Stabbing? Arson? In reality what could possibly be easier than standing distant from a target and squeezing the trigger, perhaps without them ever even knowing? This is the fundamental reason why guns should be subject to strict control laws – they make killing too easy.

The second argument made against control is that if someone really wants to kill (like James Homes) control measures won’t stop them. They may make things harder, weapons and ammunition more difficult to obtain for instance, but if they really want to kill they will find a way to do it. All you’re really doing is taking weapons out of the hands of responsible citizens who might otherwise constitute a deterrent threat – right?

Although I can see the logic in this argument – overall, allowing the populace to arm itself without restriction makes little sense in the context of modern democratic societies like Britain or America. While you may not be able to eliminate psychopathic killings such as one described above, or the Dunblane massacre in the UK (1996), increased control measures will reduce far more common ‘spur of the moment’ murders. An informative FBI data set shows that in 2010 41.8% of firearm homicide victims were murdered during arguments, and a further 23.1% were slain during ‘felony circumstances’ such as rape, robbery, burglary etc. Obviously taking firearms out of the equation during these arguments / felonies would have dramatically increased the victim’s chances of survival. After all, it takes a split-second of emotion to murder someone with a gun, and the above statistics clearly demonstrate that this ‘moment of madness’ is how homicide/manslaughter by firearm most often unfolds. By the way the same data set shows that private citizens ‘justifiably killed’ 232 people by firearm over the course of the year – just 1.8% of the total homicides.

Furthermore, the self-protection/vigilante argument comes unstuck when you realise that the very idea that you can adequately defend yourself with a firearm is suspect in most cases. Suppose the extremely remote chance of someone trying to kill you comes to pass, most often they have the initiative on you and consequently you don’t have time to respond. Even if you do, producing a gun will undoubtedly increase your chances of being shot. In the remaining remote chance that you successfully regain the initiative, there suddenly becomes a high chance that you will end up committing manslaughter. This argument suggests that there should be an extremely high risk to potential murderers in order to protect against the extremely low risk of murder occurring in modern democratic societies. Obviously, this makes little sense. To add official backing to this argument, consult the UNODC’s global study on homicide which acknowledges that the research literature suggests that “firearm availability predominately represents a risk factor rather than a protective factor for homicide.” (p.43)

A third point I’d like to make is that the statistics that are often cited by anti-control pundits are entirely misleading. For example, in the UK gun crime has supposedly gone up since the 1997 Firearms act, anywhere up to 110% depending on which statistics you read. But ‘gun crime’ stats can easily be manipulated depending on definitions – I suggest that this in fact the main reason for such outlandish figures. If we single out the firearms homicide rate, that has remained relatively constant at around 60-70 deaths per year. If anything, there is a trend downwards.

Finally, I’d like to conclude by acknowledging my rivals point about society. In Switzerland there is an extremely low murder-rate, despite high gun ownership. Equally, I could cite the obvious correlation between gun-ownership and violent death in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Society and culture clearly has a big part to play in this delicate issue, but it is one concerning the extent of the control measures, (which is still up for debate on a country by county basis) not the necessity of them. In the US context, the 2nd amendment harps to a bygone era when the risk to individual travellers was far higher, and is simply not relevant today.

Andrew Totten


What do you think?

Should You Commit Torture?

What would you do in a ticking bomb scenario? Should you commit torture?




[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s the 7thJuly 2012. In the past few days, you, in your role as an Intelligence Officer at MI5, have become aware of a plot to blow a plane up over the skies of London with a surface to air missile. The perpetrators want to show the world that they do not need to board a plane to destroy it and that they are capable of striking at the heart of every and any Western country. Not only will all passengers and crew perish should the attack proceed, but the remnants of the aircraft falling to the ground over central London will undoubtedly cause mass hysteria and further casualties. This is of course aside from the nightmarish images that will be broadcast instantly around the world instilling fear and apprehension into the minds of many.

The plot was uncovered following covert reconnaissance on a suspect who has now been detained. Interviews have proved unsuccessful, all attempts at trickery, plea bargaining and psychological techniques have been used and failed. The only way to stop this attack is to use more forceful methods to extract the required information. Should you commit torture?


The ticking bomb scenario is a challenge to views held by most liberal democratic nations: torture is always wrong in any and all circumstances. The scenario fabricates a simple theoretical situation whereby torture appears the ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’ thing to do. In order to do this the writer must declare the truth of a mass of information which would be impossible to know in a much more complex political reality. She must know that the missile will be launched, that the launch will be a success, the plane will be hit and all passengers will die, the suspect is definitely the perpetrator and the torture would be successful in releasing important information. If just one piece of information in the above list is inaccurate, our confidence in our choice to torture as ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’ is cast into doubt. By using a simple theoretical method to explain a political situation we become so abstracted from a much more complex reality that we are able to make choices which appear black or white; right or wrong. When we start to sketch in the reality of situations like these we start to find the type of political greyness that give rise to all questions of morality and ethics in the first place. For example, if we consider that the human being of which we choose to torture is in fact innocent and has been wrongly accused and that she may lie in order to end the violence being inflicted upon her are we still confident that torture is ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’. The scenario is always misleading to the extent it paves over the complex political reality where these factors play a crucial part.

Secondly, the ticking bomb scenario is an attempt to establish a universal political circumstance where we can argue that the ethical thing to do is to torture. That, even as liberal democrats who otherwise avoid violence in political life, we are happy to follow this line of action and still feel content that we have acted within the guidelines of liberal morality. The issue with this is that the ticking bomb scenario is never universal; it is always politically biased and always to the loyalties of the West (we are the audience). The fact that London is the location and that the lives of innocents are at risk is not coincidental. Neither is the fact that the attack is an affront on ‘Western values’. We are immediately aware of which side we lie and we are silently coerced into believing the suspected attacker is immoral and wrong. For the scenario to be ethically universal we would be able to change the suspected perpetrators and victims to any particular group and it would still appear ‘right’ and ‘reasonable’. For example, if the situation was that the British Army was launching an Air Missile targeted at an area with a high concentration of Taliban members would we still agree that it is ethical for the Taliban to torture a British solider to release information in order to prevent the attack? If you are loyal to the British Army or anti-Taliban then I imagine there might be much more of a problem. The differentiation arises purely from the political loyalties we have. The ticking bomb scenario plays on our particular bias rather than providing a universal moral code of which would overcome particularity.

Alex Hall


I pondered various avenues whilst contemplating how to demonstrate that torture in this situation is both appropriate and moral and thought I would start off with a trip down Sensationalist Hill. Whilst something of this substance is more likely to be found in such ——– [I have been edited]as the Daily Mail, it is unfortunately a fairly logical argument. Would you have tortured Mohammad Sidique Khan if you had captured him before London was attacked? Would you have made one man suffer for a few hours in an attempt to save lives? Or would you have sat squalidly in your ‘principles’ and allowed the innocent to perish? Four bombs detonated on the July 7 2005 killing 52 people. What would you have done if you had an opportunity to change the outcome?

Secondly I consider the famed Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. He has argued that torture should be legalised because in a ticking bomb scenario the government would undoubtedly use torture in order to save lives (even in the knowledge that it would then become subject to a lawsuit). Dershowitz argues that should we legalise torture, we can then ensure that it is carried out according to codes of practice, in as humane a process as is possible. For if torture is not legalised, then when governments are placed in a situation as has been given the terrorist will be subject to fairly horrendous methods of information extraction.

If torture is … used in an actual ticking bomb terrorist case, would it be normatively better or worse to have such torture regulated by some kind of warrant, with accountability, record-keeping, standards and limitations?

And Dershowitz is a liberal.

Of course the preceding paragraph doesn’t answer as to whether you should commit torture. It states that you would commit torture (if of course you are a government agent as per the scenario we have been given). So maybe I should return to whether it is moral or appropriate to commit torture in this specific example. Let’s start with what we have been told.

1) The plot was uncovered through the suspect (let’s call him ‘Abe’)
2) Abe is somehow affiliated with the plot and is in possession of information that would aid the investigation
3) Should the attack be successful many lives would be directly lost, the UK economy would suffer tremendously and the already-suffering world economy would feel the after-effects.
4) Abe is refusing to help the investigation

Thus we can affirm that Abe is quite happy to withhold information (that he definitely possesses) that could prevent a mass murder of innocent people. Do the numbers not tell us that he should most definitely be tortured, or am I barking up the completely wrong tree?

Tom Hashemi