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The Morality of Terror

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The Morality of Terror

. . . assumes that the means justify the end. April 16, 2002

At the recent meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Malaysia, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammed Mahathir, said “the causes of bitterness and anger . . . of terrorists should be identified and removed.” He added that people would not be willing to blow themselves up and kill others if they did not have a reason.


Indeed not: human beings always have a reason for behaving as they do. The question is not whether they have a reason, but whether the reason they have is a good one. And Mahathir implied that anyone prepared to use himself as a human detonator must have a very good reason, or he wouldn’t go to those lengths. This is not a case of the end justifying the means, but of the means justifying the end. You know your cause is good—and other people must admit it too—if you are prepared to murder innocent people at random in order to further it.


This is the reductio ad absurdum of the Romantic cult of feeling: for if the history of the world teaches anything, it is that very bad causes have often received support from people with very strong emotions. Many men have died bravely, even heroically, in the pursuit of odious ends. The fact that the Wehrmacht fought with the utmost tenacity does not in any way extenuate Nazism. On the contrary, it is an illustration of the appalling potentiality of evil to possess the human mind.


Mahathir’s remarks also suggested that there is a simple mathematical correlation between fanatical terrorism and oppression suffered: that not only does the rage justify the act, but the act justifies the rage. A remarkably obtuse remark by Peter FitzSimons of the Sydney Morning Herald makes this correlation even clearer: “We accept that such hate as drove the planes into the World Trade Center can only have come from incredible suffering.” The circle is closed, and all compassion, all sympathy for others, and all genuine moral thought, is rigorously excluded. And chaos ensues.

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