[I]t’s about time we all stop treating Iraqis, and Arabs generally, as anything but what they are: Human beings, capable of making rational choices, who, like the rest of us [emphasis added CB], are accountable for their own successes, their own failures, and their own fates.
On a plausible reading “like the rest of us” looks like a weasel phrase here: on the one hand appearing to stretch out the hand of a common humanity but with a wave of that same hand dismissing the very different conditions under which that human life gets lived. I wish I had a view about responsiblity, agency, choice, blame and so on that I was satisfied with. I don’t. But that view would have to satisfy at least two conditions: first, it would have to treat our fellow humans has having the capacity for free choice and second it would have to take a realistic view about the obstacles to their actualizing, developing, and exercising that capacity. If I lived (as I do) under conditions that are relatively propitious for that actualization, development and exercise, then I would hesitate before using phrases such as “like the rest of us” about those who have grown up under dictatorships and in much tougher material circumstances than I have.
The Jerusalem post quotation put me in mind of three others:
First, from Karl Marx:
Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted. ( The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte )
We might add, that sometimes they make their history under circumstances that others have chosen for them.
Next from John Rawls, discussing, especially, the responsiblity of Japanese and German civilians and soldiers for the conduct of their governments:
In the conduct of war, well-ordered peoples must carefully distinguish three groups: the outlaw state’s leaders and officials, its soldiers, and its civilian population. The reason why a well-ordered people must distinguish between an outlaw state’s leaders and its civilan population is as follows: since the outlaw state is not well-ordered, the civilian members of the society cannot be those who organized and brought on the war. This was done by the leaders and officials, assisted by other elites who control and staff the state apparatus. They are responsible; they willed the war; and, for doing that, they are criminals. But the civilian population, often kept in ignorance and swayed by state propaganda, is not responsible. This is so even if some civilians knew better yet were enthusiastic for the war…..As for soldiers of the outlaw state, leaving aside the upper ranks of the officer class, they, like civilians, are not responsible for their state’s war. For soldiers are often conscripted and in other ways forced into war; they are coercively indoctrinated in martial virtues; and their patriotism is often cruelly exploited. ( The Law of Peoples , pp. 94—5)
And finally from Jon Elster, qualifying the view that citizens of democracies should be held responsible for their material condition:
In any society there will be individuals who for idiosyncratic reasons are deaf to incentives and, in more serious cases, have to be supported by the state. In a society with fair background conditions the support would, however, not be offered as compensation; and the supported individuals would, like the mentally ill, be more or less randomly distributed across all social groups. Most contemporary societies do not approach this condition. They contain large groups whose members are systematically prevented, by poverty, and lack of employment opportunities, from developing the mental attitude of holding themselves responsible for their actions. To treat them as if the background conditions were just, telling them that they have only themselves to blame for their failure, would be a massive piece of bad faith. ( Solomonic Judgements , p. 212)