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September 11th and the danger of moral relativism.
God, the events of September 11th convinced me that America has to respond with force against its enemies. But I'm beginning to hear voices that caution me to be more compassionate. They tell me to take into account what motivated the terrorists. The terrorists had a reason for what they did. If we don't find it acceptable, that's simply our opinion. But who is to say that we are right and they are wrong? Aren't moral judgments nothing more than the views of history's victors? Aren't all ethics ultimately determined by personal prejudices? Can we really claim there is such a thing as absolute truth? And even if there is, shouldn't we allow for extenuating circumstances to excuse what we consider evil deeds?
There's a classic story of two social workers who suddenly come upon a mugger severely beating a man he is in the midst of robbing. They watch the criminal mercilessly pound his victim to a pulp. Their hearts filled with compassion, they point to the mugger and mutually agree that in all certainty he really needs their help.
Okay, the story is apocryphal. But its point is extremely relevant for our contemporary society that places such a high premium on understanding those who do wrong without a corresponding concern for the rights of innocent victims.
For years, we've been spoon-fed the "Officer Krupke" defense from the musical West Side Story:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke
You gotta understand
It's just our bringing up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers are all junkies,
Our fathers are all drunks.
Golly Moses! Naturally we're punks.
But the Ten Commandments weren't limited to people blessed with perfect parents nor to those who grew up only in comfortable surroundings.
Somehow God felt people could be held accountable for their actions whether they were rich or poor, whether they were raised in luxurious palaces or in squalid slums. "Thou shalt not steal" doesn't have a modifier. "Thou shalt not murder" doesn't come with conditions. The guidelines for human behavior that have their source in the Bible presuppose universal applicability.
Motives may explain, but they do not ever excuse.
Motives may explain, but they do not ever excuse. To believe anything else is to give license to every criminal to get away with prohibited actions. Society simply can't exist if it has to accept lawlessness just because it lays claim to a defense rooted in some previous event in the life of the perpetrator.
Yes, Mohammed Atta, the terrorist leader of the September 11th attack, suffered from an overbearing and highly demanding father. Yes, Mohammed Atta was forced to live with his father's criticism that mercilessly branded him as excessively effeminate. Perhaps we can understand what could have inspired him to prove his manhood. Maybe piloting a plane into the twin towers convinced his father once and for all that he was really macho. But psychology and penology are two different fields. Psychology explains motives. Penology centers on punishment.
IT'S ALL OUR FAULT
There's only one thing worse than excusing evil by explaining its motivation -- and that's denying there's anything wrong with it in the first place because the victims deserved it.
Anti-Americanism has become very popular around the world. Coming from other countries, it serves as a cover for envy. Success invariably breeds covetous hatred. Struggling nations can't bear to see the United States prospering. So when America comes under attack, they gleefully rush to proclaim that we had it coming to us. Compassion for victims is muted by understanding for those seen as merely responding to the excesses of a super power. Terrorist guilt becomes less significant than America's responsibility for planting the seeds of its own misfortune.
A Hamas leader, approvingly quoted in state sponsored newspapers of the Arab world, has no problem in summarily declaring, "America is the problem that lies behind all other problems." Historian Eric Foner, writing in the London Review of Books, isn't embarrassed to admit that he can't decide "which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House." Surely we have to sympathize with an academician who can't see the moral distinction between terrorists who knowingly murder thousands of innocent civilians and the stern response of the United States President expressing his resolve to seek justice!
CONFUSION ON THE CAMPUS
Scapegoating America has unfortunately found disciples even in our own midst. Self-hatred is a condition best left for psychologists to explain. But there seem to be no lack of prominent spokespersons for the view that our response to the twin tower tragedy has to be self-flagellation. College campuses were quick to demonstrate their compassion -- not for the victims but for the perpetrators. A speaker at a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill teach-in called for an apology to "the tortured and the impoverished and all the millions of other victims of American imperialism." Georgetown University speedily scheduled a debate on the semantically loaded topic, "Resolved: America's Policies And Past Actions Invited The Recent Attacks."
College campuses were quick to demonstrate their compassion -- not for the victims but for the perpetrators.
A Yale University panel of professors felt compelled to focus on the "underlying causes" of the September 11th attack, with special emphasis on America's failings, illustrated by our on-going "offensive cultural messages."
Harvard University, not to be outdone, allowed us to wonder about the intellectual caliber of its students who carried signs that declared, "War Is Also Terrorism."
It seems George Orwell wasn't far off the mark in his trenchant observation that "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them."
The best-attended and most vociferous rally in years at the University of California Berkeley was a protest against a campus newspaper that carried a cartoon showing Muslim suicide bombers in hell. Apparently it is unacceptable for anyone to express the view that suicide bombers are going to suffer divine punishment instead of eternally partying with 70 virgins. This, of course, at a University famous for its unqualified commitment to freedom of speech. But then again moral relativism has no problem distinguishing right from wrong according to its own skewed standards.
Perhaps even more striking is what Paul Hollander, Prof. Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pointed out in an article published in The Washington Post on October 28th, 2001:
America's homegrown critics hold the peculiar conviction that if hatred of the sort that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center is directed at the United States, there must be good and justifiable reason for it. Yet these same critics never seem to take such a position in regard to victims of other hate crimes. Many of those habitually critical of this society (and claiming a desire to "understand" why it is hated while simultaneously believing that such a hatred is fully justified) support severe punishment for hate crimes without seeking to understand the grievances and resentments that produce them. They do not ask what battered women have done to justify their mistreatment, or what it is in the behavior of homosexuals or blacks that stimulates virulent hatred. Nor do they seek to "understand" or to plumb the "root causes" behind the actions of the wife beater or those who assault or murder gays... It is only when people have some sympathy with the violent act and its perpetrator that they start looking for root causes, to understand the aggressor and something in the behavior or attitude of the victim that shifts at least some of the responsibility from victimizer to victim.
THE ERROR OF MORAL RELATIVISM
Moral relativism deserves to be held in contempt not only because it refuses to call evil by its real name. It fails on a more profound level by virtue of its admitted emphasis on "relativism."
Righteous indignation, for its disciples, is "relative" to the extent that it's only reserved for what its followers believe is worthy of hating. It begins by denying legitimacy to any moral preference -- only to conclude by condemning the ethical choices of those who differ from their outlook. Terrorists can't be condemned, but America can. Suicide bombers have to be understood but politically incorrect transgressors have to be sued, fired from their jobs and completely ostracized. Anyone who says a word against gays has overstepped his right to free speech but all those who vilify the United States while taking advantage of its blessings merit uncritical approval and applause.
Moral relativism claims it can't make up its mind and then goes right ahead and worships its own version of the Ten Commandments. But the principles of moral relativism don't come from divine revelation. They're just another form of prejudice parading as higher wisdom.
HOW A GENERATION WENT WRONG
What makes moral relativism so popular? Why does it seem to be the philosophy that is so attractive to today's youth?
A recent My Turn column in Newsweek magazine (December 17th, 2001) by Alison Hornstein offers us a fascinating look into the mind of a contemporary college student. Alison writes she was deeply troubled to note that just one day after September 11th her classmates seemed to be incapable of expressing any anger or even indignation at what had been the most successful terrorist attack of her lifetime.
"Being taught to think within a framework of moral relativity has created a deficiency in my generation's ability to make moral judgments."
She struggled to explain to herself why her generation appears to be so uncomfortable "assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place." And the answer didn't take long in coming to her. She realized that throughout her formative years her teachers were guided by a non-directive approach that consciously avoided presenting students with any ethical judgments. People were never bad; they were just different. Practices of other cultures could never be criticized; they could only be contrasted with our own as a valid and different life style. When her class learned that in some countries females were forcibly circumcised in a painful way that left them maimed for life, they were told they had no right to make a judgment on its morality just because it seemed abhorrent to them. "Different strokes for different folks" was the self-understood code by which to evaluate other people's behavior.
Alison understands now that "being taught to think within a framework of moral and cultural relativity without learning its boundaries has seemingly created a deficiency in my generation's ability to make moral judgments." For her, September 11th was a watershed moment that opened her eyes to the realization that "Some actions are objectively bad, despite differences in cultural standards and values."
But Alison admits at the conclusion of the article that her views are far from popular on her campus. The idea that we might all agree to call the murder of thousands of innocents an evil act is obviously still too daring for the generation that is destined to replace us!
THE NON-JUDGMENTAL MEDIA
This approach of our schools in the past decades has managed to impact not only our young but also our media. Even as America has gone to war, network executives pride themselves on remaining "fair and balanced" at all times.
Executives at the Reuters news agency cautioned their writers and editors against ever using the word terrorist. You see, they explain, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. To use the word terrorist is to make a moral judgment. We can't possibly waive our commitment to total neutrality. David Westin, president of ABC News, didn't hesitate to define the role of journalism as incompatible with the advocacy of any side in the conflict.
Can you just imagine how today's anchormen would have reported the discovery of crematoria and concentration camps in World War II?
Can you just imagine how today's anchormen would have reported the discovery of crematoria and concentration camps in World War II? Do you understand how barbaric this approach is in light of Elie Wiesel's profound observation that "the greatest evil is not man's inhumanity to man, but rather man's indifference to his fellow human beings"? To be fair, balanced and neutral in the face of genocide boggles the mind. To believe that American reporters aren't expected or even allowed to openly side with their own soldiers seems to me almost treasonous.
David Westin eventually "changed his mind" when the public fallout that followed publication of his remarks proved too damning. Fox News, sensing the steep rise in American patriotism, decided that its mantra would be "Be accurate, be fair, be American." Fox executives felt that a nation at war deserves support from its media, especially when its cause is so clearly just. But that didn't stop Alex S. Jones, the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University from hotly criticizing Fox News for its failure "to explain the evolution of the other side's motivation against the United States."
Roger Ailes, the Fox News chairman, may not have been very diplomatic in his response but I have to respect his directness: "Look, we understand the enemy -- they've made themselves clear. They want to murder us. We don't sit around and get all gooey and wonder if these people have been misunderstood in their childhood. If they're going to try to kill us, that's bad!"
WHY THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE WAS OFF LIMITS
It would be helpful for us to look at the beginning of the book of Genesis.
The very first commandment God gave to Adam and Eve was the prohibition of eating from the Tree of knowledge. That law has always troubled the Biblical commentators. Knowledge, after all, is a good thing. It's one of the main ways in which human beings are distinguished from animals. It's connected with our quest for truth and our attempt to understand more about God and his universe. Why then was the fruit of the tree of knowledge forbidden to our first ancestors?
Maimonides, a 12th century rabbi, theologian and philosopher, offered the following interpretation. Nowhere did God tell the first man and the woman to stay away from a tree that would offer them knowledge. In fact, being created in the image of God, Adam and Eve surely already possessed wisdom. What God wanted to keep them from was a tree that the Bible describes as "the tree of knowledge of good and bad." Its fruit introduced a new kind of knowledge, a way of knowing far different than the one they were familiar with until now that made them judge everything by the standards of true and false.
True and false are words we still use for objective facts. "Two and two equals four" is true; "two and two equals five" is false. No one can argue with these statements. But the words "good" and "bad" are no more than subjective opinions. Applied to any action, there can always be those who claim that what you think is good is really bad and what you consider bad is actually good.
It's irrelevant whether two and two adding up to four is good or not. It's just true.
That's why good and bad aren't used to describe scientific truths. It's irrelevant whether two and two adding up to four is good or not. It's just true. And saying that two and two produce a total of five isn't bad. It's simply false. Only in the realm of ethical issues are the words good and bad relevant. Abortion? Euthanasia? Putting to death those who are mentally defective or racially inferior? For some, these actions are good and for others they are very bad.
Before Adam and Eve sinned, their knowledge was untainted by subjective considerations. They could as clearly address ethical issues as mathematical equations. Kindness was "true" and killing was "false." That's why God didn't want his children to eat from a tree that would alter their perception from moral certitude to relativism. And from the day they disobeyed, we continue to be cursed whenever we substitute subjective criteria for objective and unqualified truth.
I don't think it's stating it too strongly to say that the very survival of mankind, as we face the threat of nuclear terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century, depends on our ability to acknowledge that morality demands taking a stand. We must be willing to differentiate between the acceptable and the abhorrent. In an age that has for far too long glorified relativism, we've got to learn to get rid of our excessive neutrality and nonjudgmental behavior. Some things are simply evil -- and no amount of rationalization can alter that truth.
An excerpt from the soon-to-be published book, September 11th: God, Let Me Ask You Some Questions, by Rabbi Benjamin Blech.