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Moral relativism & "A Mighty Heart" & July 4


Mariane and Daniel Pearl (Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman) in "A Mighty Heart."

The term "moral relativism" (or "moral equivalence") has always fascinated me because of its slipperiness -- its moral relativism, if you will. The way the term is used in politics these days (by Israelis and Palestinians, conservatives and liberals, Christians and Muslims, and so on), it can mean one thing or its opposite, depending on who's using it and what they're trying to justify.

What it boils down to, in popular rhetorical discourse, is the moral equivalent of a five-year-old's finger-pointing: "But they started it!" and "What they did was worse!" This creates an inescapable and illogical ideological loop, wherein each new assault is justified by a previous one (or fear of a future one) that attempts to even the score but never, ever does, since it is always used to rationalize the next reprisal. It's always a matter of "self-defense" in the minds of the perpetrators.*

This ever-escalating tit-for-tat is, in fact, moral relativism at its most insidious, because it posits that there is no objective right or wrong. Something is considered moral or immoral depending on who does it and when, rather than on the nature of the act itself and its consequences -- whether unintended ones, or the intended kind that pave the road to hell.

Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, has an essay at The New Republic website ("Moral relativism and 'A Mighty Heart'") in which he recalls a conversation with a Pakistani friend who said "he loathed people like President Bush who insisted on dividing the world into 'us' and 'them.' My friend, of course, was taking an innocent stand against intolerance, and did not realize that, in so doing, he was in fact dividing the world into 'us' and 'them,' falling straight into the camp of people he loathed."

In other words, if there's one thing I can't tolerate, it's intolerance.

But I am confused by Pearl's argument. That's always been one of the perils of war, hasn't it? In trying to destroy the thing you oppose, you are inevitably faced with the prospect of, knowingly or unknowingly, blurring the moral distinctions between you and your enemy. You become the thing you hate.

Pearl states that "there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance." He begins by saying he used to believe in a simplistic morality in which "the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant; and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the forces of tolerance could win out over the forces of intolerance, I reasoned, the world might finally know some measure of peace."

If that sounds like an excessively naive position (perhaps even a straw man), it should come as no surprise that it is one he says he no longer holds: "There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts -- no ifs, ands, or buts," he writes. "Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31, 2002."

Would that it were so. His own article, sadly, is proof that it isn't. "One should, in fact, condemn and resist political doctrines that advocate the murder of innocents, that undermine the basic norms of civilization, or that seek to make pluralism impossible," he writes. "There can be no moral equivalence between those who seek -- however clumsily -- to build a more liberal, tolerant world and those who advocate the annihilation of other faiths, cultures, or states."

Sounds good, but the problem here is as fundamental as the ancient clichés: "Talk is cheap," and "Actions speak louder than words." America's officially undeclared "War on Terror" is built on a tacit agreement between neoconservatives and Muslim radicals (see "The Power of Nightmares"), framed and fought by "both sides" as a battle of Western Civilization vs. Islamists. Rationally or irrationally, each is absolutely certain that the other's goal is nothing less than the annihilation of their faith, culture and state -- not to mention themselves, their neighbors, and their families. If those are the stakes, and anything can be justified in the name of preserving one's very existence, is that moral relativism? And if so, who do you have to convince that it is? And to what end?

Pearl quotes "A Mighty Heart" director Michael Winterbottom from a Washington Post chat in which he said he sees sees similarities between his film "The Road to Guantánamo" and "A Mighty Heart."

"Both are stories about people who are victims of increasing violence on both sides," Winterbottom said. "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."

(Winterbottom prefaced this remark, though Pearl does not quote him, with: "'The Road to Guantanamo' was not anti-American. It was showing what happened to three British guys in Guantánamo. I think Guantánamo is wrong. I don't think 'Guantánamo' should exist. That doesn't make me anti-American. Lots of Americans think it's wrong as well. In the case of Daniel Pearl, maybe at first glance it seems like this is the oppostie side of the story from 'Road to Guantánamo.' But I think actually both stories are very similar....")

Pearl responds:

Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detainment of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their e-mails and the murder video. Obviously Winterbottom did not mean to echo their sentiments, and certainly not to justify their demands or actions. Still, I am concerned that aspects of his movie will play into the hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity.

But that is what "professional obscurers of moral clarity" do -- usually in the name of moral clarity. They distort, spin, and obfuscate. They propagandize. They exploit the blunders of their enemies. And they claim a monopoly on victimhood. Any casualties they cause on the other side -- whether it's the people on those planes or in those buildings on 9/11, or the random innocents who were
also sent to Guantánamo -- are incidental. These propagandists are among the extremists who help ratchet up the levels of violence, as Winterbottom says, because they see only themselves as victims and consider everyone else an enemy combatant and therefore fair game.

To acknowledge that there are victims and extremists on either side is not to play into the enemy's hands, no matter how they may try to spin it, because then they are forced to acknowledge the same thing. What serves the enemy is behaving in ways that appear to give weight to their propaganda, by far the most powerful weapon in any war. Suicide bombers, by definition, destroy themselves along with their victims. And because of that, they are doomed to lose. The West's challenge is to avoid helping to create more suicide bombers by acting in ways that appear to lend credence to their feelings of paranoia, humiliation, and victimhood.

The killers of Daniel Pearl claimed (publicly, at least) that he was a CIA agent, not just a reporter. That's how they chose to frame their brutal murder, hoping to shift the moral debate away from their own actions and onto Daniel Pearl. But even if he had been a CIA agent, does that excuse what they did to him? Is the very idea of due process simply another casualty of war, so that mere suspicion -- or allegation -- justifies torture and murder? There, I would say, is where moral relativism ends.

To say that Winterbottom's comparison "is precisely what the killers wanted" is to ignore that the whole "War on Terror" concept, and particularly the inept invasion and occupation of Iraq it was used to justify, is precisely what Al Qaeda wanted: to create the perception of a war between the West and Islam. It's been a worldwide recruiting drive for Al Quaeda and other ideological camps seeking to convert Muslims to terrorism. Winterbottom is quite specific about the similarities he sees between the stories of his two movies, and nowhere do I see him implying that the murder of Daniel Pearl and the secretive detainments at Guantánamo are equivalent. What he's saying, I think, is more like "two wrongs don't make a right" -- that, in war, victims are victims and aggressors are aggressors. No moral relativism there. Just a fact. Judea Pearl's son was savagely murdered, and nothing can rationalize or excuse that fact. Now, how do you explain to an Iraqi husband or father that the death of his children, wife or parents is less morally significant because they were accidental collateral damage?

Pearl continues:

Indeed, following an advance screening of "A Mighty Heart," a panelist representing the Council on American-Islamic Relations reportedly said, "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film." The message that angry youngsters are hearing is unfortunate: All forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out. This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddiqui Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his videotape on Al Jazeera. "Your democratically elected government," he told his British countrymen, "continues to perpetrate atrocities against my people ... . [W]e will not stop."

So, this panelist spins the movie his way, a suicide bomber spins his actions his way -- and Pearl accepts both spins at face value? Why? Is criticizing the wholesale round-up of un-charged detainees at Guantánamo really the same as saying, "All forms of violence are equally evil"? That seems like a mighty stretch to me -- very much like the claim that legitimate criticism of the government's response to 9/11 and its conduct of the "War on Terror" is morally equivalent to siding with terrorists.

Pearl then gives his own reading of the movie:

What is needed now is for intellectuals, filmmakers, and the rest of us to resist this dangerous trend and draw legitimate distinctions where such distinctions are warranted.

My son Danny had the courage to examine all sides. He was a genuine listener and a champion of dialogue. Yet he also had principles and red lines. He was tolerant but not mindlessly so. I hope viewers will remember this when they see "A Mighty Heart."

I couldn't agree more. But who decides which distinctions are "legitimate" or "warranted"? Isn't Pearl just offering his own version of the definition of pornography (or art): I know it when I see it?

In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes: "Muslims have got to understand that a death cult has taken root in the bosom of their religion, feeding off it like a cancerous tumor.... If Muslim leaders don’t remove this cancer — and only they can — it will spread, tainting innocent Muslims and poisoning their relations with each other and the world." And in an NPR interview about his book "The Assault on Reason," after an accounting of America's failures in conducting the "War on Terror," Al Gore said: "The point of this book is that our nation is so shockingly vulnerable to such crass manipulation.... And the fact that there is so little protest or outcry points to the much deeper problem not of just the culpability of those in the White House at the present moment, but at the fact that we are so vulnerable to these mistakes and that we allow them to occur with hardly any impressive outcry of resistance or protest." Are Friedman's and Gores statements mutually exclusive? Not at all. Each "side" bears full responsibility for its actions.

From the New York Times' July 4 editorial:

Ideas have a way of recommending themselves by the behavior of the men and women who hold them, and this is no less true of nations. The question isn’t simply whether we can project our ideal of freedom around the world. The question is whether, by who we are and how we behave, we can make the freedom that animates us compelling to others.

Anything less than fidelity to American ideals makes our talk of liberty and tolerance seem like a sham to the very people we seek to convince that we offer a better way. And those are the only people who can win the "War on Terror." America can't do it alone.

Back when John McCain still appeared to have something of a moral compass, he criticized the inflammatory and ineffective Bush policies that allowed or encouraged "extreme interrogation methods" or "abuse" or "torture" (depending on whose PC term you want to invoke) by saying: "It's not about who they are. It's about who we are."

That is not "moral relativism." That is "moral clarity." We can't control who "they" are. We can only control who we are.

The Declaration of Independence reads: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes...."

Those are the standards we have to live up to.

Happy America's Birthday!

* * * *

* Nearly every kind of violence is justified with claims of self-defense against a future threat or a past attack. I wonder when it started. With the "coalition of the willing" invasion of Iraq? Or Afghanistan? With 9/11? Or the attack on the USS Cole? Or the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya? Or the formation of Al Quaeda? Or the establishment of US military bases in Saudi Arabia? Or the first Gulf War? Or the US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war? Or the first (or second) Intifada? Or the US backing of the mujahideen (a faction of which later became the Taliban) after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Or the killing of US Marines in Lebanon? Or the US support for the Shah of Iran? Or the Iran hostage crisis? Or the Islamic Revolution and the fatwahs of Ayatollah Khomeini? Or the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics? Or the Six-Day War? Or the formation of OPEC? Or the withdrawal of the British from the Palestine Mandate in 1947, the rise of Zionism, and the creation of Israel in 1948? Or the formation of the Ottoman territories of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra into Iraq in the British Mandate of Mesopotamia after World War I? ... All these things have been cited as direct root causes of Middle Eastern tension and terrorism. Where do you want to begin?

(Thanks to Aaron Brown for sending the link.)

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