Friday, September 22, 2006
Explanations Are Not Justifications
Of course, as prak also observed, "the vast majority of Muslims have done and said nothing. But the right wing is driving the bus right now, and they clearly see this as an opportunity to push a clash of civilizations narrative."
Which is the point that I was making about providing bin Laden and the "clash of civilizations" proponents such a helping hand. Or as Marc Lynch put it in a post that makes it look like I plagiarized him:
This is why Bush's recent "Islamic Fascism" speeches were such a gift to bin Laden, playing right to the al-Qaeda script, and seeming to confirm al-Qaeda rhetoric over a Western "Crusade" (and don't even get started on Bush's recent "religious revival" musings). And now the Pope has jumped in to lend a helping hand to al-Qaeda. Couldn't they have just sent flowers? I don't think that this is quite what the Counter-Terrorism Center at West Point meant by "stealing al-Qaeda's playbook" - we weren't supposed to actually run al-Qaeda's plays for them.It is not impossible to hold both thoughts at the same time: that the Pope's words were reckless, if not deliberately inflammatory (not to mention daft from a counterterrorism perspective), yet the reaction on the part of the Muslim cadre of "clash of civilization" proponets and other assorted radicals has been shameful and self-refuting.
This reminds me of a piece by Gene Callahan that I cited last month in an effort to counter the claim that any attempt to examine the impact that our foreign policy choices were having on the growth of terrorism was akin to justifying those same terrorist acts. For the purposes of this discussion, I will replace "foreign policy" with "inflammatory rhetoric" and "terrorists" with "extremists" - which is meant to designate those radicals that have reacted violently to the Pope's words - in these excerpts from that post. The underlying point remains the same:
The question is not whether or not the actions of [extremists] are morally justified in light of [inflammatory rhetoric], but whether one can explain how certain of our [inflammatory rhetoric] can create a dynamic within which [extremism] might become an attractive option and otherwise flourish. Said Callahan:The second point that I wanted to clarify is that it is not unreasonable to expect certain influential political and religious leaders to show more discretion and savvy than other less prominent citizens - and that even this heightened standard does not need to extend to absurdity. There is no magical blend of rhetoric, societal choices and expressions that are going to placate all Muslims, all the time. Neither should we, as a society, be under an obligation to seek out such a formula, or institute a policy of self-censorship that will in any material way curtail our freedom of thought or expression. Nor should we demand this of our leaders.Through the same basic category mistake, [defenders of the inflammatory rhetoric] erect a useful strawman with which to criticize and belittle the work of political opponents, historians and commenters...who seek to probe explanations of the [extremism] phenomenon that consider cause and effect relationships and thus, hopefully, support and help craft policies [and rhetoric] designed to minimize their deleterious consequences. While many commenters...have explored the root causes of [extremism], there are only nominal numbers on the fringe that seek to morally justify those [extremist] actions by referring to our [inflammatory rhetoric].
The mode of historical discourse is that of just such explanations. The historian qua historian is not concerned with the morality of a course of action. He is concerned with explaining why that course of action, and not some other, actually was chosen. The result of his efforts is a coherent narrative that describes how historical events arose from various actors' understanding of their circumstances.Moral justification does not concern itself with such explanations, but, instead, with whether or not some action conformed to a tradition of moral practice.
But this doesn't mean that just because we should not overcompensate through rote self-censorship, or perpetually walk on egg shells, that we should not strive for best or better practices, or that we cannot find some optimal balance. Especially when there is little gained by the particular inflammatory speech. At the very least, we should be able to ask that our most influential leaders, like the President and the Pope, not lead block for Osama's off-tackle runs.