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Moral Equivalence

In today’s Guardian newspaper, the father of murdered US journalist Daniel Pearl comments on the Angelina Jolie movie based on his story, A Mighty Heart, which comes out in Britain this week. It’s a thoughtful and quietly moving article, a … Read More

By / September 19, 2007

In today’s Guardian newspaper, the father of murdered US journalist Daniel Pearl comments on the Angelina Jolie movie based on his story, A Mighty Heart, which comes out in Britain this week. It’s a thoughtful and quietly moving article, a version of which previously appeared in The New Republic, and is worth looking at.

The film’s director, Michael Winterbottom, suggested in the WaPo recently that A Mighty Heart is in many ways a companion piece to his previous film, The Road to Guantanamo, saying: "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this" – thus drawing an explicit comparison between the actions of the Bush Government and the jihadists who beheaded Pearl.

Judea Pearl writes:

Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detention of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their emails and the murder video. Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart in Los Angeles, a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said: "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film."

Yet the message that angry youngsters are hearing from such blanket generalisation is predictable: all forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out. This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddique Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his video. "Your democratically elected government," he told his fellow Britons, "continues to perpetrate atrocities against my people … [We] will not stop."

Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31 2002.

In truth, and with due respect to Professor Pearl, moral relativism surely died a long time ago. The word ‘evil’ has a bad name, as it were; like ‘fascism’, overuse – and misuse – threaten to rob it of its remaining meaning. Citizens of free societies owe it to themselves to ensure that those freedoms are upheld by their governments, not threatened. But resisting their tendency to reach for the big authoritarian stick in the name of national security is one thing; putting ourselves on the same moral plane as suicide-murderers, or the thugs who turned Pearl's murder into a video entitled "The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl" – even implicitly - is quite another. And this is true no matter what transgressions our governments commit in our names.

Michael Winterbottom no doubt believes that he’s acting as our conscience by making pronouncements like this, but as far as I’m concerned, he speaks for himself.

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