The Corner

National Security & Defense

Even in the Face of ISIS, Some People Still Can’t Resist Moral Equivalence

It’s hard to believe, but 14 years after 9/11 — after tens of thousands of terrorist attacks, ample understanding of jihadist motivations, and crystal-clear evidence of jihadist depravity — some people still play the moral-equivalence game. Salon (of course) published a piece with the perfectly Salon-y title, “We brought this on ourselves, and we are the terrorists, too.” The piece is exactly what you’d expect, with all the references to “shock and awe,” the knowing nods to a “history” the author apparently understands but refuses to explain, and the common condemnation of an American public that refuses to ask why.

The moral equivalence is just so tired by now, but some people can’t resist:

If we want a complete list of the places touched by terror, we have to include a more or less countless number of villages, towns and cities most of us have never heard of: communities — if we can still get away with calling them such — in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Libya and so on down a long list.

I do not think there is any more ducking the point: The violence, disorder and anxiety that threaten to envelop us is not “terrorism” only when visited on Western societies and arriving by primitive rather than high-technology means — exploding bags of nails as against expensive bombs. Among the victims and perpetrators of terror, it naturally follows, no part of the world is populated by the one but never the other.

Let me try that again: Most of us still try to duck these points, but all such attempts grow ever less plausible. The true meaning of our fondness for “shock and awe” creeps up upon us, to make the point another way.

Given the absurdly restrictive rules of engagement on American forces, given that American forces limit themselves so much that pilots generally return from missions with their payloads intact, and given the jihadists’ insistence to attack whenever and wherever they can, let me ask a simple question — is there any form of militarized self-defense that is acceptable? Or must everything be handled by one part law enforcement and nine parts self-flagellation? And to use the moral-equivalence argument after a bombing in Brussels? During my time in Iraq, I must have missed all those Belgian legions looting and burning their way across the Middle East.

Then there’s this:

We are preoccupied with the crisis confronting us but have no clue how or what to think about it.

Nothing brings this home more squarely than the news coverage coming out of Brussels. There is a bottomless supply of “who,” “what,” “when” and “where,” but reporting of this kind provides information — data and nothing more. We have all the “tick-tock” — moment-to-moment chronologies — one could ever ask for. We have pictures of windows and doorways and police lines and police in masks, people placing flowers in the streets and all the rest. We seem to have infinite appetites for this kind of thing, and it seems to satisfy most of us. We are given to the instrumental, we can say; the most minute details of “how” events took place is more or less all we want.

We have had not a syllable of “why,” have we? “Why” requires more than data. One must wade into the waters of context, causality, responsibility and motive. One must have some modest grasp of history. One must be prepared to consider whether one is implicated to one or another degree. With these one might eventually achieve some understanding. It is for the sake of understanding that “Why?” is bedrock in good journalistic practice, however few pay any attention to this principle.

Not a syllable of why? Surely this isn’t serious. Since 9/11, pundits, historians, and politicians have written millions of words about the why. From the first days after the World Trade Center towers fell to viral essays written just last year to best-selling books, Americans have been voracious consumers of the why. What this author means, however, is that not many people believe his version of why — a version that’s been trotted out (mainly on college campuses) both before and after the war on terror, a version that selectively interprets (and sometimes) rewrites the facts of history in service of a narrative of western villainy and Islamic victimization that is painfully simplistic and morally perverse.

We do, in fact, have a clue as to how to think about the challenge of jihad. What we do not have is any easy answer. Because jihad is deeply imprinted in the DNA of Islam, there is no clear fix, no simple rationalization by reference to Western actions, and no permanent resolution. There is, however, the long struggle — one that each generation faces to greater or lesser degrees. Some want to deny this truth, but with each suicide bombing — on top of the thousands of bombings that came before — those voices become less relevant and less interesting. There is no moral equivalence. We know the “why.” The truly interesting question is “How?” — how do we defend against such reckless hate?

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