Spam and Terror, An Insulting Comparison: Commentary on Vinod Scaria.

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 112-3.

Mr. Itzhak Ben Hevron was a baby in Hevron in 1929, when the non-Jewish residents of that city rioted, and broke into the homes of Jewish families. He was miraculously rescued from the riots which killed 62 defenseless members of the old Jewish community, men, women and children, under the eyes of the ruling British. The British then moved the surviving Jews away from Hevron. In 1968, however, when Jewish settlement was again permitted in Hevron, Itzhak moved back and started his family.

When his daughter, Shiri, grew up and married, she and her husband settled in Adura, a community not far from her father's and her Hevron birthplace. One Saturday morning, Shiri's husband was in the synagogue, with the other men at Shabbat prayer. Someone found a way to bypass the guards, and broke into Shiri's house. Before Shiri's eyes, he went from bedroom to bedroom, shooting children in their beds. He killed Shiri's daughter, and wounded her other children. Shiri said afterwards that he seemed to have no look in his eyes at all; he was more like a robot than a person. This is what is meant by terror. Spam might be horrid and evil and nasty. But comparing it to terror is an insult to Shiri, Itzhak and their families. It is also an insult to the 187 people who were killed, and the more than 300 wounded in Bali, as well as their families. The same goes for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the US, the attacks in the Kashmir, the Philippine Islands, Sri Lanka, the theater in Moscow, and so on. The comparison also shows insensitivity to the real world, to suffering and to loss. Whatever Spam may be, it is not terror. And whatever else terror may be, it is at least the intentional killing and maiming of civilians - men, women and children, for political or religious goals, usually as part of the planned policy of a government, or a religious or political movement.

I also do not believe that spam causes very much harm. Every day I receive dozens of emails with pornographic suggestions, or advertising come-on's in their subject lines. It is a little annoying. But it is really no problem to push the "D" key and delete them. And sometimes the subject lines are funny enough for it to have been worth my while to see them.

I have a further problem with Vinod's paper. Are people who send out spam, or even people who cause computer viruses, completely bad? I have thought of this a lot. Please allow me to reminisce, in order to make my point. Years ago, we lived in what one sociologist or philosopher called unintentional communities. We did not choose our neighbors. Nor were all of them people of the sort we would want to be neighbors with, if we had a choice. But the fact that we had to deal with them, to cooperate on matters of common interest, to solve problems together and to patch up misunderstandings, forced us to come to terms with other humans and to recognize their humanity. The Internet changed all this. Now I have close friends all over the world: friends in India, Korea and Japan who mean more to me than do most of the people who live in our block of flats in Israel. These are friends whom I chose, and who chose me. Is this a good thing? I don't know. Is a friendship which is face-to-face for a few days every year or so, and the rest of the time just words on a computer screen, an authentic friendship? Is it as important for the meaning of our lives as is coming to terms with a neighbor whom I would not have chosen to come to terms with?

This is just one of the things which the Internet is changing for us. It is also doing away with privacy. No personal communication, medical file, etc is immune to eavesdropping anymore. It is for this reason that I think the bioethics discussions about genetic privacy, etc, are idle. If the information is in a computer, and if the computer is ever online, then forget about your privacy.

It has also changed the lives of children; maybe it changed the meaning of "growing up". Children used to play in the sun and the snow and the rain and the mud. Now they sit by their computer screens. They used to raise donkeys and dogs and chickens. Now there is a new kind of therapy, therapy by means of Animals, for children with personality and other problems, and it is probably needed because the computerized world has alienated them from nature.

But the point is that these changes in the world are not changes which we have chosen. Someone who wants to live in a simple, pre-computer world does not really have that choice. Even pay telephones are disappearing. So you need a mobile phone to let your family know that you were not hurt in the most recent terror attack. And if you do find a pay telephone, you cannot use coins but need a prepaid card, making payphone use impossible for those who cannot afford to buy the card.

I do not support people who want to take revenge by spreading computer viruses. But I think I understand their desire to take a stand against world changes which were imposed upon them. And to get back to spam, those of us who are cooperating in the computerizing of the world never asked permission from those who do not want their lives computerized. So maybe we are implicitly saying that those who want to send us spam have no need to ask our permission either?

To paper by Scaria
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