The Bankruptcy of Moral Relativism
Judea Pearl, the mother of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has written a must-read piece for the Guardian's web site. Ms. Pearl writes of her concerns over the recent movie made about her son's 2002 murder, A Mighty Heart:
At the same time, I am worried that the film falls into a trap Russell would have recognised: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far. You can see traces of this logic in the film's comparison of Danny's abduction with Guantánamo (it opens with pictures from the prison) and of al-Qaida militants with CIA agents. You can also see it in the comments of the movie's director, Michael Winterbottom, who wrote in the Washington Post that A Mighty Heart and his previous film, The Road to Guantanamo, were very similar: "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."
I've seen The Road to Guantanamo. It's the story of the so called "Tipton Three": three British Muslims who were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban and ended up in Guantanamo for two years. They claimed to be innocent of any ties to jihadists and said that they wound up with the Taliban through an incredible series of coincidences. They also allege to have been brutally abused by their American captors.
Winterbottom's film is a thoroughly uncritical version of the Tipton Three's account. Frankly, it requires the viewer to believe that the protagonists are the three biggest morons in recorded human history in order to accept their story. Talk about suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately for Winterbottom, in July one of the Tipton Three admitted on British television that he trained in a jihadist camp while in Afghanistan. You would think an admission of having lied about what they were doing would cause people to question other parts of their story as well. However, this inconvenient bit of evidence seems to have been dutifully ignored.
Unfortunately, Winterbottom and his films are merely a symptom of a broader moral and intellectual vacuity. It is little wonder that, as Ms. Pearl points out, jihadists welcome the efforts to put them on the same moral plane as those who fight them:
Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detention of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their emails and the murder video. Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart in Los Angeles, a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said: "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film."
Yet the message that angry youngsters are hearing from such blanket generalisation is predictable: 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 Siddique Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his video. "Your democratically elected government," he told his fellow Britons, "continues to perpetrate atrocities against my people ... [We] will not stop."
That such empty headed moral relativism does indeed enable the jihadists is confirmed by former Islamist Hassan Butt. In a July 1 piece for The Observer, he wrote the following:
When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.
By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.
America and its allies are far from perfect, and certainly not above criticism. However, to argue that the U.S. is morally equivalent to al Qaeda is the height of moral and intellectual bankruptcy. America under FDR did things that make the alleged wrongs of the Bush Administration look like a school picnic. We firebombed cities, and used our overwhelming battlefield firepower with precious little regard for civilian casualties. At home, we practiced Jim Crow, and wrongfully imprisoned over 100,000 people because of their ethnicity. Despite all this, no credible person would argue that America was the moral equivalent of the Third Reich or Japanese Empire. Yet today, much of the chattering class both here and in Europe delights in equating America with a murderous totalitarian movement that would destroy all the freedoms they allegedly hold dear.
Ms. Pearl wraps things up far more eloquently than I:
Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. 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. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31 2002.