Life as an Extreme Sport

Morally Superior, Relative, UnSpeak

Since all the cool kids are doing it, I’ll jump on the “Oliver Kamm is a pompous tush” bandwagon, too.

Seems Mr. Kamm has been engaging in spats of moral relativism recently, saying, in response to Professor Ron Greaves calling the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London “an act of demonstration”,

Moral clarity on terrorism requires distinguishing the force used by the democratic state from the violence of private armies. […] It is true […] that the word terrorism is used politically in order to denote illegitimacy of certain types of violence. And there’s much to be said for that, as there is for referring (as I have done in this post) to the “force” exercised by the security services of a democratic state as against the “violence” of those arraigned against democratic authority. To do this is […] to use language discriminately where moral discrimination is essential. The democratic state uses violence, and terrorists use violence; but these acts are not alike.

Mmm… so because a democratic state sanctions the violence, it’s okay and legitimate and morally hunky-dory, but those terrorists have no state backing, so bad them! Morally suspect!

Save, of course, the whole question of just what it does mean to have democratic support for an idea. In some countries, polls as low as Bush has certainly shows an opinion, and it ain’t support.

What’s interesting is that Steven Poole goes on to quote Captain Assaf L, an Israeli Air Force captain who, along with 29 other members of the air force, refused to continue bombing Palestine. Captain Assaf L said that

You don’t have to be a genius to know that the destruction from a one-tonne bomb is massive, so someone up there made a decision to drop it knowing it would destroy buildings. Someone took the decision to kill innocent people. This is us being terrorists.

In what can only be seen by some who know me as an unusual move, I’m going to disagree with the good captain, while simulanteously continuing to make disapproving noises towards Kamm.

What this comes down to, at the heart, is exactly what terrorism is. These days, the rhetoric used by Kamm is far from unusual: we’re democratic, therefore it’s a war of liberation. They’re bad guys who attacked us a few times, they’re evilbad terrorists! In Captain Assaf L’s case, he’s taken to defining terrorist in another common way, a rhetorical method favoured by the so-nicknamed peaceniks: all intentionally caused death is bad.

Now, as a Buddhist, I gravitate more towards the latter attitude by default, but I am willing to draw a historical distinction between terrorism and…rebellion, if you will. This is where I think the Israeli/Palestinian situation differs from the US/alQauda situation. Israel and Palestine are, for better or worse, stuck in a civil war. They are attempting to figure out where country boundaries are, if any are, and they’re killing each other in the process, each side proclaiming the other terrorist rebels. As many others have noted, this isn’t far off from our own country’s beginnings in its own civil war. Tactics of terror are certainly used, but I don’t think that automatically makes one side or the other terrorists.

In the US/alQauda case, the tables are turned, and are different. Yes, alQuada is a terrorist organization. Yes, the US responded to terrorist attacks…and after that, the US kept going. Iraq? Not so much with the being of alQuada. The US? Not so much with being anything other than a giant bully…doing exactly what Britain did during her heyday: forming empire. It’s just a different form of empire these days, as it’s a different era. But the modernization of life shouldn’t blind anyone to what’s going on: the United States attacked, without provocation, people who had nothing to do with any of the reasons the US laid out as justification for attacking. It is the action of a police state, of a neocon movement to establish a new world order. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be listening to Operation: Mindcrime while writing this…)

Anyhow. Deviation and digression. Back to the more general topic at hand, Poole notes that arguing about ‘moral clarity’ is an interesting rhetorical paradox that

usually signals the introduction of a double standard, an attempt to split morality into a twin-track system whereby, for instance, “they” are evil, and “we” just make mistakes. In this sense, “moral clarity” is really moral relativism: if you criticize us, we will just point over there and remind you of how bad they are . . . This seems like a good thing to keep in mind, the next time you see/hear someone talking about moral clarity. Exactly what are they arguing, and what are they attempting to obscure with that particular use of, as Poole calls it, unspeak?