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Wednesday, September 19, 2007 

Moral relativism isn't dead, it's just resting.

Last week Martin Amis attempted to convince us that liberal relativists would choose Osama bin Laden over George Bush, and as a consequence become an appeaser of every evil in the modern world, apart from seemingly paedophilia, although if he could have worked that in he probably would have.

On a similar line, Judea Pearl, the father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl today writes in the Guardian on what he calls the death of relativism:

I used to believe that the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant, and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the former ruled the earth, I reasoned, the world might know some measure of peace. But there was a problem with my theory, and it was never clearer than in a conversation I had with a Pakistani friend who told me that he loathed people like George Bush who insisted on dividing the world into "us" and "them". My friend did not realise that he was in fact falling straight into the camp of people he loathed.

Fair enough, he has something of a point here. There's plenty of reasons for disliking Dubya, and one of the weakest is his declaration that you can either be with us or with the terrorists. That was a false dichotomy then, and loathing Bush for that reason is reasonably lame.

This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell. The stronger you insist on the necessity of tolerance, the more intolerant you become toward those who disagree. The moral lesson is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance; ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance.

Quite right too. It's therefore strange that Pearl then takes this distinction and then throws it right out the window.

Which brings me to my son, Daniel Pearl. Thanks to the release of A Mighty Heart, the Angelina Jolie movie which premieres in the UK this week, Danny's legacy is once again receiving attention. Of course, no movie could ever capture exactly that magical combination of humour and integrity, gentleness and resilience, that made Danny admired by so many. Still, traces of these qualities are certainly evident in A Mighty Heart, and viewers will leave the cinema inspired by them.

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."

Apart from the bewildering choice of Angelina Jolie to play Pearl's wife Mariane (when she is non-white and Jolie most certainly isn't), Winterbottom does indeed have form in not telling the full truth, especially when it comes to the film the Road to Guantanamo, which took the claims of the Tipton Three that they were traveling to a wedding and to experience Afghan cuisine at face value, claims since debunked by the appearance of two of them on Lie Lab. Nevertheless, there also isn't much wrong with Winterbottom's statement: who could disagree that there are indeed extremists on both sides, one side currently agitating for the insanity of launching an attack on Iran, while the takfirist jihadists in Iraq itself continue their savage, barbaric attacks both on civilians and those standing up to their own brand of tyranny?

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."

There's something though that Pearl isn't mentioning which most likely has a bearing on his comments. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged murderer of Pearl's son is currently being held at Guantanamo as an "enemy combatant", having been rendered to Jordan and also likely to another CIA "black site" before his transfer to Cuba.. Rather than denying the possibility that KSM was tortured during his detention, ABC reported that those who interrogated KSM were impressed by his ability to withstand "water boarding" for up to two and a half minutes before he began to talk.

Let's be clear here: Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was almost certainly a top member of al-Qaida, and as such is responsible for mass murder, let alone the heinous crime of beheading Pearl. None of that however justifies either his apparent mistreatment while in US custody, especially as the US has always denied and continues to deny that it has ever used torture, or his continued detention without trial at Gitmo, when he could have been deported from Pakistan upon his capture and tried in a US court on the charges he is accused of. Pearl is right that there is no comparing murder with indefinite detention without charge, but one does not justify the other. This is not to be relativist, but to realise that the current methods with which the US has fought the so-called "war on terror" have been highly counter-productive.

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."

But this is a logical fallacy. If all forms of violence are equally evil, then no forms of violence are therefore justifiable; it doesn't mean the exact opposite, that because one act of violence is evil that reacting to it with another act of evil is therefore justifiable. All of this is simplistic nonsense: as appealing a doctrine as pacifism is, violence is sometimes necessary as a temporary means to an end, for example to overthrow a tyrannical government when all the other peaceful options have been fully exhausted. While we can understand why Mohammad Siddique Khan and his three companions did what they did, both through their own distorted prism reacting to an action and through their morally bankrupt religious justification, to suggest that "relativists" are somehow defending or even through their condemnation of both Guantanamo and terrorist murderers justifying further violence by those very takfirists is a great fat straw man.

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.

It's unclear exactly what Pearl means here. Is he saying that Guantanamo, which is a device used by "those who vow to end such acts", can therefore not be criticised purely because of the good intentions of those behind that vow? What about the rendition programme as a whole, which has produced little tangible results in terms of usable intelligence to prevent attacks, but which has shown the West's claims to occupy the moral high ground are dubious at best and disgraceful at worst? Or is it that he simply wants an end to the silly but confined to a few view that because we invaded Iraq we should expect to be attacked as a result, and that it is indeed also justified?

Hopefully it's the second and I've misunderstood him. His final paragraph at least is a fine one:

My son 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 of A Mighty Heart will remember this.

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