When We Rationalize Terrorism, Our Moral Compass Busts

04/25/2013 05:05 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

On September 11, 2001, as an undergraduate in Montreal, I arrived at my first class of the morning--Spanish--to find my classmates huddled together, wearing grave expressions. "There's been some kind of attack in New York," someone said.

Our teacher, a Venezuelan, soon arrived and the class filled her in. But the teacher didn't share in our shock. She just shrugged, saying, "This is not such a big thing. Things like this are common where I come from. Now America knows what it feels like too."

At the time, I took this comment in stride. I was, after all, a Left-leaning young progressive. I was studying the liberal arts, volunteering with Amnesty International, a regular participant in demonstrations on various social justice issues. I read "critical" literature, accepted the validity of identity studies, and was suspicious of government just for the sake of it. I sat through academic discussions that divided the world into simple categories: There were the colonialists like the British and the new-colonialists like the Americans, and the oppressed peoples of the Third World, yearning to be free of the yoke of imperialism. One side was guilty, the other was innocent, and neither were ever both.

And like most people in my camp, the default setting was to look with disdain upon our neighbours to the South. America was the Left's favourite bad guy, and the words "U.S. Government" slipped from our mouths with unguarded contempt, almost regardless of context.

In Christopher Hitchens' memoir, the late author reflected on the chasm that emerged between his own views and that of (ultimately former) friends Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, noting that they "believed that if the United States was doing something, then that thing could not by definition be a moral or ethical action."

This same habit has been adopted by not only admirers of Chomsky and Said, but by a great number of people who consider themselves to be progressive thinkers. It is a habit that gave many of us amnesia in the wake of the U.S. war in Iraq, when it came to the abuses of Saddam Hussein's regime, so well documented in Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear. As Nick Cohen, critic of the contemporary political Left in the United Kingdom, wrote of in his book What's Left?, Makiya suddenly found himself shunned by the British Left that formerly embraced him, with the arrival of American boots in Mesopotamia. Makiya's former comrades had a new enemy, the United States, and no time left for the thousands of torture victims, political prisoners, and disappeared lost to Saddam's murderous police state.

This is the modus operandi for many now, an ethically impoverished worldview whereby any questionable actions by the U.S. automatically take precedence for opposition over any questionable actions by any other group or state, especially if that group or state happens to be located in the orbit of what is sometimes still called the Third World. It's why Canadian (and indeed American) anti-war organizations exclusively oppose conflicts involving the U.S., and have nothing to say about, say, the conflict raging in Chechnya, or the millions of lives lost to war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or about Pakistan's and Iran's imperialist ambitions in Afghanistan.

By now well polished, this kind of thinking is already showing up in the knee-jerk responses to the identification of the Boston Marathon bombers. I've seen commentary all over social media from otherwise intelligent people seeking to rationalize the decisions of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to link their actions to American foreign policy blunders. There are sloppy comparisons to other atrocities in other countries (like drone victims in Pakistan), trying to gage who suffers more, and implicit suggestions that America had it coming.

Never mind that attempts to implicate the U.S. in Chechnya's war have little ground to stand on. And even if you do think that the U.S. has waged terror of its own (and ignoring for the moment that collateral casualties are not the moral equivalent of the deliberate targeting of civilians) what, exactly, is the objective of engaging in tit-for-tat apologism? And would someone who thinks that the U.S. is deserving of violence on its own soil think the same way if they lost a child in the Boston bombing? Would this misplaced empathy with the terrorists still work if one's own legs were blown off by shrapnel?

Then there is the conspiracy theorizing that comes so naturally in such events, like the claim that the FBI itself set the bombs. Anything but acknowledge that in this case, the people of the city of Boston were victims. That is it. There is no reason, no revenge, no rationale for the actions of two deranged young men.

When Peter Mansbridge asked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau what he would do, as prime minister, in the immediate aftermath of an attack like the one in Boston, after saying he would offer sympathy and resources for support, Trudeau then said that "we have to look at the root causes" and focused the rest of his response on this point.

But the root cause is only depravity. Terrorists are defined by their methods. Their means are their ends. Just as Vaclav Havel used peaceful dissidence to pursue democracy in Czechoslovakia, the Taliban use terrorism to pursue the imposition of a violent theocratic regime in Afghanistan. The line between seeking to understand this depravity, and seeking to justify it, is fine and must be tread upon with care.

The inhumanity of the Tsarnaev brothers will not succeed in helping the cause of Chechen nationalism. It does not strengthen the case for Islamist rule in their homeland. If the brothers turn out to have espoused any kind of recognizable "cause," that cause can only be discredited by their actions.

The moment we enter the fray of trying to rationalize terrorism, our moral compass goes bust. The proper reaction is to condemn the violence, and to mourn the victims. Apologetics are cheap when innocents lie in their graves.

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