Is it Wrong to Firebomb a Bank?

The Grand Conclave of World-Masters is getting closer here in Toronto, as are the protests against them and the police operation against said protests. Expect the odd post on related subjects.

One interesting event has been the recent firebombing of a bank in Ottawa, with responsibility claimed by the ‘Fighting for Freedom Coalition’, 3 members of whom have apparently been arrested with a bunch of bullets. The type of those bullets has already been said to be one thing and then reversed by police, and since I know few facts I’m agnostic about whether the bullets were really found or planted or what.  Naturally this helps legitimise the police in whatever steps they take next week, so they’re probably glad of the whole affair.

There’s predictable outrage in some quarters, including the familiar ‘You’re no different from al-Qaeda!’ line, and I’ve seen a couple of comments expressing strong condemnation not only of  these three individuals but of anyone who denies the legitimacy of state structures per se.

So I thought it might be interesting to take this action as something to consider the ethics of. Was it wrong, and if so why?

To clarify the facts as I understand them: the bombing was carried out at night, in an empty bank, so no damage to persons was involved. The damages are estimated at $500,000. The costs of the policing operation at the G20 summit has been estimated at $1,000,000,000. The bank targetted, RBC, is the largest financial sponsor of oil sand extraction in Alberta, which is one of the most environmentally destructive activities going. It was also heavily involved in sponsoring the 2010 Winter Olympics, and some people had beef with that over land rights and homelessness.

Is this wrong in terms of its overall consequences? Well, that depends on many things, e.g.: does it incentivise banks against financing environmentally destructive activities, how does it affect public opinion, how will it influence police tactics, how much will the perpetrators suffer from their punishment, and of course how much are people inconvenienced by having to walk further to their bank? All of these are very hard to estimate.

I’m inclined to think the total probably comes out negative, because the action is so isolated and chaotic that it’s likely to be more alienating and frightening to most people than it is inspiring or ‘movement-building’. If it was an action with a weighty social force behind it, accountable to those it claims to represent, etc. then that would be different, but I’m sceptical of the efficacy of this style of action. But I could easily be wrong.

But the real point is that this sort of evaluation won’t give any very strong judgements. If the intentions were good, then even if the overall effect is negative that only warrants calling the actions ‘foolish’, ‘ill-advised’, or ‘unfortunate’. But that doesn’t account for the vitriol, and the incarceration, that this group are likely to receive. So is some stronger sort of condemnation warranted?

Perhaps it’s wrong because it carried some small risk of harm to people if the fire somehow spread to other buildings. But small risks are run constantly – certainly they should be minimised but if we never did anything with that kind of risk we’d never do anything.

Perhaps it’s wrong to cause damage to useful things like buildings, in principle? But then wouldn’t it be equally wrong to demolish buildings in order to build something else there? Indeed, it would also be wrong to hold onto food long enough for it to go off, or throw it out when it’s still useful, something I and most supermarkets are guilty of.

Moreover, those useful things have value because of their usefulness to people, so shouldn’t actions that ‘destroy’ usefulness be wrong in the same way? This would include disrupting people’s plans, denying them opportunities, or wasting their time. These things are probably still wrong, but only in the mild utilitarian way, based on whether they’re worth it. Certainly, the lost use-values expended on paying for the G20 security operation would seem to completely swamp the lost use-values from destroying one bank branch – as I said, by roughly a factor of 2,000.

Maybe the big thing is that you can damage your own stuff, but you shouldn’t damage that which belongs to other people – in this case, the RBC company owned the branch, and the FFFC didn’t. But surely their legal ownership is only morally relevant if they have a genuine moral right to own it – and how would they have come by that right? They accrued interest on capital, often by means of financial chicanery, and often by means of releasing large quantities of poison into air, land, and water which they certainly didn’t own. They wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the genocidal conquest of North America.

Why not say that you forfeit your right to not have other damage your property when you damage the property of others (e.g. by enormously financing climate change)? Or why not say that legal ownership is morally inconsequential in a world where property distributions reflect a long history of war, dictatorship, and oppression? Or even just in a world where the economy is controlled primarily by relatively narrow interests, who designed it to uphold their status?

Or maybe the issue is just that it’s against the law, whether the law is right or wrong. This, it seems to me, is the only thing about this action that really distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill possibly-foolish-possibly-not, well-intentioned actions.

Is this a big deal? Well, some laws are, of course, very important, such as laws against harm to persons. But we’ll only confuse ourselves if we run together all laws and suppose that because laws against murder are important, so too is strict adherence to all laws, even pointless ones.

But consider some quotes:

“Police reassured the public that they are confident they will be able to meet any threat during next week’s meetings of world leaders.” (not ‘Police reassured banks that…’)

“I firmly believe Ottawa is safer today than yesterday” (not ‘I firmly believe that banks are safer…’)

It seems like we’re encouraged to let our reactions to the event be governed by a symbolic link between ‘us’, bound together by our shared adherence to law, and ‘RBC’, such that attacks on them are also attacks on us. But does this link rest on any real basis?

It might rest on ‘us’ being united by some sort of similarity (e.g. ‘shared values’) – except that there are as many dissimilarities between people in Canada (or in the world) as there are similarities.

Or it might rest on shared interests – ‘we’re all in this together’. But are we? It seems to me that most of us have as many divergent interests from those of RBC as we do shared ones.

Or it might rest on nothing, but be a psychological consequence of some deep-seated emotional attachment to the idea of obedience to law as something that brings safety and happiness. This might be related to the difficulties in attributing responsibility for collective acheivements, which encourage us to focus on symbolic totems like ‘law’.

Since I’m inclined to the latter view, I find myself unable to judge this bombing as wrong in a way that goes beyond being possibly counter-productive. But maybe I’m wrong, or have missed something.

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2 Responses to Is it Wrong to Firebomb a Bank?

  1. timlshort says:

    That number for policing costs seems wildly excessive especially in comparison for the likely benefits to those paying. At that level, it simply isn’t worth having them. World leaders should use video conferencing instead.

    But isn’t your pressure group responsible for those costs anyway? They would be zero if all of those people were executed, and presumably the implied value of life at these levels would economically be similar to the amounts we are prepared to spend to preserve life in hospital or in risk considerations more widely. Apparently UK numbers are something like £1 per micromort i.e. £1m is an acceptable cost to prevent one avoidable death. So providing there are fewer than say 800 hard core protesters, neglecting an accurate consideration of FX rates, their continued life cannot be justified.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Well, for a start the police presence isn’t just for a few hundred ‘hard core’, but also for the crowds of thousands, or the possibility of others.
      Secondly, executing 800 pre-emptively would generate far more protesters than it got rid of.
      Thirdly, you can’t identify them, or apply a reliable heuristic for who to kill.

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