The moral high ground is a slippery place
Last Sunday’s episode of geo-political thriller Homeland was a particularly interesting and timely examination of moral relativism.
Taliban commander Haizan Haqqani stages a terrifying siege of the American embassy and in the midst of the massacre claims the moral high ground accusing, the Americans of atrocities in the region. This from the man who set his own family up for slaughter and then personally put a bullet in his nephew’s head for good measure.
The episode reminded me of a curious quirk of the human character. Violence committed by a foreign power or outside community is often greeted with far greater righteous indignation than violence perpetrated internally, neighbour on neighbour. This is true both for those who suffer the violence as well as those thousands of miles away who read about it in the news and purport to care.
In the case of Pakistan, the full-scale civil war that jihadists have been waging against non-Deobandi Sunnis, secularists, Shia and Christians has barely registered in the Western media, despite the fact that 5,000 Pakistani soldiers have died fighting the Pakistani Taliban since 2008, while reports of American drone strikes have provoked outrage both in Pakistan and in the West. Local voices that supported drone strikes against the Taliban did not penetrate the anti-drone narrative.
It took the murder on Monday of 132 school children and nine adults in Pakistan to bring the Pakistani Taliban back into Western headlines – but its reappearance was brief. Despite the magnitude of attack, by Thursday the story was relegated to the inside pages of The New York Times. And somehow I doubt that the feisty anti-war group CodePink will be adding the Peshawar bloodbath to its list of war crimes.
We find examples closer to home. While the IRA and their American supporters were executing a strategy of violence against the “oppressive” British state, the Catholic Church in Ireland was – aided and abetted by the Irish government – carrying out what the UN has called “arbitrary detention, forced labour or ill-treatment” of women and girls.
My father, who grew up on the Falls Road, was always deeply skeptical of republican mythology. Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t beaten up by the British Army until he was in his 20’s. By that point, the Christian Brothers had been beating him for years. (As a working class Catholic boy growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the hierarchy of violence he had been subjected as a youth to would have looked something like this: 1) clerics 2) working class Protestant boys, with Brits a distant 3rd.)
The last few weeks have brought the grim news from the United States of several police killings of unarmed African American men across the country. The perception is that there is an epidemic of violence perpetrated by white cops on black men. This perception has brought people out to show solidarity and demand an end to racially motivated police brutality. Social media is full of emotionally charged images of protestors of various races, staging “die-ins” on the street and in schools. Yet these deaths take place against a backdrop of shockingly high murder rates for black men. There were over 6,309 black homicide victims in the US in 2011, 86 percent of whom were men, and the majority of whom were shot by people they knew, according to the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center. Somehow these appalling statistics don’t end up on placards.
At the heart of protest movements is moral indignation and the belief that *my* side is morally correct. This fervour is infectious among a wider circle of well meaning people with no direct connection to or experience of the heart wrenching issues at hand, but who take as gospel the underdog narrative. It just so happens to be our peculiar and historically unprecedented zeitgeist that the urge is to identify with the victim, rather than the victor. And it’s a powerful urge, so powerful that any questioning of the underdog gospel is drowned out in a chorus of condemnation, not unlike the more socially conservative moralising of times past.
The amplification that results inevitably distorts, making it difficult if not impossible to discuss, analyse and therefore solve the real underlying problems. Beware the modern-day moral crusaders.