Friday, August 15, 2008

Are Jihadists "Noble Warrors"?

The ethicist Elshtain rejects the moral equivalence argument of Rorty and spends dime countering the argument that evil is good and good evil depending upon how you look at it. On page 19, for example, she writes, “the designation of terrorism becomes contested because terrorists and their apologists would prefer not to be depicted accurately. It is important to distinguish between two cases here. In some hotly contested political situations, it may be in the interest of one side to label its opponents ‘terrorists’ rather than ‘combatants’ or ‘soldiers’ or ‘fighters.’ We must ask who such men (and women) are attacking. Do they target soldiers at outposts or in the field? Do they try to disable military equipment, killing soldiers in the process? As they carry out such operations, are they open to negotiation and diplomacy at the same time? If so, it seems reasonable to resist any blanket label of ‘terrorism’ for what they are up to.

“In a situation in which noncombatants are deliberately targeted and the murder of the maximum number of noncombatants is the explicit aim, using terms like ‘fighter’ or ‘soldier’ or ‘noble warrior’ is not only beside the point but pernicious. Such language collapses the distance between those who plant bombs in cafes or fly civilian aircraft into office buildings and those who fight other combatants, taking the risks attendant upon military forms of fighting. There is a nihilistic edge to terrorism: It aims to destroy, most often in the service of wild and utopian goals that make no sense at all in the usual political ways.

“The distinction between terrorism, domestic criminality, and what we might call ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’ war is vital to observe. It helps us to assess what is happening when force is used. This distinction, marked in historic moral and political discourses about war and in the norms of international law, seems lost on those who call the attacks of September 11 acts of ‘mass murder’ rather than terrorism and an act of war under international law, and who go on to claim that the United States has also engaged in ‘mass murder’ in its legally authorized counteroffensive that removed the Taliban and disrupted the Al Qaeda network and its terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. This argument perpetrates a moral equivalence that amounts to the ‘pile of garbage’ . . . . If we could not distinguish between an accidental death resulting from a car accident and an intentional murder, our criminal justice system would fall apart.

“And if we cannot distinguish the killing of combatants from the intended targeting of peaceable civilians and the deliberate and indiscriminate sowing of terror among civilians, we live in a world of moral nihilism. In such a world, everything reduces to the same shade of gray and we cannot make distinctions that help us take our political and moral bearings. The victims of September 11 deserve more from us.”

Lawrence Helm

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