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Moral Equivalence


The "we are just as bad as... or worse than them" mentality

A pervasive argument appearing in the post-colonial paradigm is that of "Moral Equivalence." In the case of Islamic terrorism the dynamics of moral equivalence can be seen among some figures of the western intelligentsia in their vociferous moral indignation at the behavior of Western nations that, they allege, led to acts of terror, and their understanding attitude towards the terrorist acts themselves (HRC). Even if they do not intentionally excuse terrorism, such writers produce the unhappy consequence of explaining Islamic terrorism in terms of "Western misdeeds and faults," and of framing the debate in terms of "what the West did to deserve such attacks" and, therefore, reverse the moral equation. The West's "wrongs" come to be seen as more reprehensible than the "reaction" (however "harsh" and "inexcusable") by terrorists. The easy moral challenge is: "Are we not hypocrites, when we do the same thing?"

At some level, this is a pathology of self-criticism (MOS) - it is all our fault, and if we were better, then we could fix everything. Meanwhile, while we demand the highest standards of ourselves, we treat the terrorists as morally challenged, who can't even understand the questions of intention and cannot be expected to self-criticize. We become incapable of making the distinction between victims and perpetrators, and end up blaming the victim.

Since the beginning of this century three major international events epitomize the way that moral equivalence in its extreme forms (HRC and MOS) have led some Western intellectuals to moral folly:


Nothing marks the early 21st century more harshly than suicide terrorists, a morally depraved practice of blowing oneself up amidst civilians (to be distinguished from suicide bombings that targeted military or political enemies. In the meantime, Israel's policies in the Gaza strip and the West bank are described as "state terrorism". Therefore, not only both the Palestinians and Israel are guilty of terrorism, but Palestinian terrorist acts are understood as a reaction of a defenseless people - "their only weapon" - against a far more powerful force. "What choice do they have?" "If I had so little hope, I too might feel that way." See, for example Cherie Blair's comment. The idea that the Israelis deserved what they were getting, which underlay much of this widespread reaction to the assault of suicide terrorism, explains why the British were so surprised by 7-7... they thought this only happened with good cause (LCE), with no idea of the "moral" universe that motivates such violence.


For ten days, representatives from NGOs the world over met in Durban South Africa to discuss racism and how to fight it during this new century. Since racism is one of the most endemic traits of human societies, with prejudice based solely on physical differences like the color of one's skin, so widespread in cultures around the world, one would have expected wide scope and much introspection on the part of participants. Instead the conference, like so many other venues at the UN, spent its time reviling Israel, a country integrating a population with the most varied racial types, and no time on the Arab world, where slave trading and massacring black Africans still goes on (Mauritania, Middle East, Sudan). Instead, recognizing that slave trading was one of the ugliest manifestations of racism, the congress condemned Western slave trade, discontinued over a century and a half ago.


The moral equivalence orthodoxy interprets the terrorist attacks of September 11 as a specific reaction against an imperialistic US foreign policy. In short, "America had it coming". In the aftermath of September 11 Noam Chomsky, one of the main contemporary creators of moral equivalence narratives, described the US led "war on terror" as contradictory, because the US has been guilty of state terror for decades and to him terror was overwhelmingly the weapon of the strong, not the weak (See here and here). In this narrative both US led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq are substantially worse than the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the rule of Saddam or the Taliban, and US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as war criminals, on a par with Bin Laden. Critics of the Iraq war tend to give the moral ground to the "rebels," described by filmmaker Michael Moore as "the revolution, the minutemen."

IN ORDER TO FULLY UNDERSTAND the dynamics and consequences of moral equivalence one has to be able to identify and understand its main features:


This refers to the prevalent tendency in Western media to adopt an "objective, impartial" even-handed approach to situations and conflicts where open civil societies face their enemies, such as Islamists. Major news corporations such as the BBC, Reuters (see also here), and the Boston Globe, for example, refuse to label deliberate attacks against civilians as "terrorism", because, according to the editorial guidelines of the BBC the "word ‘terrorist' can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding." Therefore according to Western journalistic standards of objectivity, in order not to "obscure understanding," suicide bombers targeting Israeli civilians are invariably described as "militants" or "activists," and Iraqi groups who indiscriminately kill fellow Muslims civilians - as "rebels" or "insurgents."


The mistakes/flaws of western democracies, Israel and their leaders are invariably described in an exaggerated manner. Many times the rhetoric acquires a virulence that should disquiet any sober person:

- When Guantanamo Bay is compared with the Gulag by Amnesty International.

- When George W. Bush was described by the mayor of London as "the greatest threat to life on earth."

- When Nobel literature laureate José Saramago compared Israel to Nazi Germany and the territories to Auschwitz.


In this case the tendency is to equate a negative example of behavior of Westerners with the worse kind of atrocity perpetrated by others. In the world of moral equivalence, for example, Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians are compared to what the Nazis did, US president George W Bush and neo-conservatives are seen as "extremists" and as fundamentalist as Islamists, and the American abuses at Abu Ghraib are somehow equivalent to torture under Saddam (see also here).

The following cartoon published in a mainstream UK newspaper provides a telling visual example of such a simplistic analogy:

moral equivalence

It's clearly tempting to see the parallels, and feel infinitely morally superior to both. But if you can't see the differences... what do you think brings you the culture in which you can so freely indulge in moral narcissism and so violently attack your own government? How long do you think you'd last in the culture that produces the fellow on the left above.


Moral equivalent proponents habitually blur the boundaries between useful self-criticism, essential and vital to any healthy civil society, and a moral self-flagellation, that maximizes "our flaws" and minimize "their" flaws, even when they represent a far greater danger and, as in the case of Jihad, an existential threat. If moral equivalence thinkers, for example, applied to the Arab world the same finely tuned moral criteria they apply to their own societies (roadblocks and barriers to protect against suicide terrorism as apartheid racism), their "moral radar" would be instantly overwhelmed by the violence and violation of human rights (honor killings, summary execution of "collaborators"). By contrast, if we gave ourselves half the moral "breaks" we give to the underdogs out there, most of our "sins" wouldn't register.


In an interview to BBC in May 2004 Noam Chomsky declared that the term "moral equivalence" is used as a weapon in the hands of those who want to supress free speech: "The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeanne Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence whatsoever."

Aside from the near incoherence of the passage (JK invented the term to denounce the phenomenon), the final line seems incomprehensible: isn't that just what Kirkpatrick meant - that there were no moral equivalences between the US and the USSR? But the overall message is clear: by refusing to accept wild moral equivalences between the misdeeds of civil societies committed, however imperfectly, to defending human rights, with the behavior of totalitarian regimes, we somehow throttle any criticism... as if rejecting grotesquely inflated criticism were the equivalent of rejecting all criticism.

In an interview to Der Spiegel, Germany's magazine of reference, in June 2005, filmmaker Woody Allen dismissed the events of September 11 in the following manner: "The history of the world is like: He kills me, I kill him, only with different cosmetics and different castings. So in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other. Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral - not important."

Allen, unwittingly perhaps, has repeated the "dominating imperative" that the Athenians called up to justify killing the Melian men and selling their wives and children into slavery. Now Allen wouldn't use the idea to justify such horrors. He's too civilized. He's so self-critical that he can't (or won't) see the difference between some Nazis killing Jews on the one hand, and some Jewish people and some Palestinians killing each other on the other. Apparently he is not aware that the move to civil society that made someone like Woody Allen possible, came from trying, however imperfectly, to overcome this dominating imperative. In lumping everything into this crude political calculus, he strengthens the hand of people who really do want to slaughter the men and sell the women and children into slavery. They're doing it right now (Sudan).

At the Second Draft we believe civil society demands a different approach - one that avoids the traps, dangers and relativism of moral equivalence. There is something different and precious about the society of tolerance and human freedom that we are trying to build. We believe that recent events and dynamics described in this page are not unimportant or "ephemeral," but fundamental errors that demand our reflection, and the creation of mechanisms to protect civil societies from real dangers and threats. We welcome contributions and examples of moral equivalence discourses. We will try to be, (dare we say it?), even-handed, and we will post any intelligent discussion on this issue, no matter how strongly we may disagree.

Let the dialogue begin.








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