May 25, 2013
Troy Jollimore on Martin Amis’ ‘The Second Plane’
Posted on Apr 24, 2008
It should probably be acknowledged that in at least some cases, the “death cult” description rings reasonably true. Still, one can’t help but think that there remains something we ought rationally to try to understand, and that is the surprising and distressing level of identification with the perpetrators of 9/11 among moderate Muslims who cannot be written off as being brainwashed by a death cult, who in fact seem to have values rather similar to those values Westerners claim as their own. Moreover, one must take seriously the fact that, against the background of the religious claims the members of the “death cult” accept, even they can be viewed as displaying a kind of disturbing, perverse rationality—so long as one manages to forget how irrational one needs to be to accept such beliefs to begin with.
What of “the chimera of ‘moral equivalence’ ”? Here, too, one might feel considerable sympathy for Amis’ position while nonetheless hesitating to completely endorse his stance. The trouble is that “moral equivalence” can mean two very different things. First, the phrase can stand for the idea that what the terrorists have done is no worse, from a moral point of view, than what our governments have done. Let us suppose that Amis is right to reject it in this sense. (I will return to this question.) Still, there is a second sense of moral equivalence that needs to be distinguished: the idea that everyone, including the radical Islamists and including ourselves, should be held to the same moral standards.
In this sense, “moral equivalence” amounts to a claim of moral universalism. And this, too, is an idea that many would deny. Indeed it seems to constitute a kind of moral common sense among a significant number of Americans that American actions are not subject to evaluation by the same standards as are the actions of others—a fact about which Amis, early in the book, displays an admirable awareness: “Most crucially, and again most painfully, being right and being good support the American self to an almost tautological degree: Americans are good and right by virtue of being American. Saul Bellow’s word for this habit is ‘angelization.’ ”
Amis is correct here to draw a link between this odious form of American exceptionalism, according to which we can do no wrong (the sort of thinking that justifies our belief in the legitimacy of our possessing weapons of mass destruction while being morally affronted at the thought that any other nation might want to possess them), and the lack of concern in this country for the suffering of others. The American media pay vastly more attention to the American body count in Iraq than to the much larger number of Iraqi civilian deaths; relatively few Americans seem troubled by the latter figure, or have cited it as a compelling objection to the Iraq war.
American right-wing thinkers have tended to encourage this “angelization” by reacting with overstated outrage to any suggestion that residents of the Western world be treated as inhabiting the same moral universe as the terrorists (or, in all too many cases, as Muslims or Arabs in general). Against this background, Amis needs to work somewhat harder to separate himself from this position, to close off the possibility that his somewhat vitriolic denunciations of the idea of moral equivalence might be read as the claim that nothing we do could possibly be as bad as what the terrorists have done—when what he seems to want to say is that as a matter of substantive fact, and as measured by moral standards applying to all, what the terrorists have done does indeed turn out to be worse than anything we have done.
Moreover, the substantive issue is not quite as straightforwardly obvious as Amis would appear to think. One needs at least to acknowledge that both the U.S. and Britain have engaged in the intentional mass killing of civilians: the indiscriminate bombings of German and Japanese cities in World War II. This is not to equate the two cases from a moral point of view. The bombings of German and Japanese civilians were strategic, and seen as means to an end—means, indeed, toward the end, that is, the end of the war. The architects of September 11, by contrast, killed as an expressive act, in which what was expressed was a passionate and genocidal rage, expecting nothing to come of it but death, destruction and terror. They killed to increase killing, indeed to inspire it, not to end it.
So Amis is right that the more correct comparison is with what the Nazis did, and not with what the Americans and British did, in World War II. Still, he ought to have mentioned the latter, as ought all who treat with contempt the idea that there is any sort of moral equivalence to be found here. The bombing of German and Japanese cities was not morally equivalent to September 11, but there is an important commonality: They both involve the intentional mass killing of civilians, which is never permissible or justifiable. We can emphasize this while still insisting that the existence of the earlier case does absolutely nothing to justify the latter, and that the comparison of the two cases does not at all decrease the gravity of the September 11 attacks, let alone somehow render them excusable. In fact its effect should be the opposite: to remind us of how serious, and how unforgivable, are some of the things that have been done in our name.
There is a certain tendency to treat jihadists as if they have simply pulled out of thin air the idea that parts of the Quran seem to advocate violence against non-Muslims. It would be considerably more pleasant, of course, if there were no such passages to be found. But there are, and so moderates find themselves needing some way of trying to render them palatable.
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