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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

On "Apologists among us"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on July 16th, 2005

On Thursday, Stygius pointed out a post by Norm Geras titled “Apologists among us.” The British professor and blogger objected to attempts by some to locate blame for the London bombings in the British role in Iraq:

It needs to be seen and said clear: there are, amongst us, apologists for what the killers do, and they make more difficult the long fight that is needed to defeat them. (To forestall any possible misunderstanding on this point: I do not say these people are not entitled to the views they express or to their expression of them. They are. Just as I am entitled to criticize their views for the wretched apologia they amount to.) The plea will be made, though – it always is – that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we all live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy that seeks to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else. […]

Geras advances a number of examples designed to show when it is and isn’t right to attribute one misdeed to another. All either amount to showing the disproportionality of the misdeed to the grievance (punch in the mouth for liking Bob Dylan, burning down a house to retaliate for a stolen bike), or disputing that the grievance is legitimate in the first place (e.g., Zimbabwe dispatches thugs to retaliate for a hypothetical anti-Mugabe British policy). I don’t at all disagree — but neither approach seems to me to very closely resemble the case at hand. Geras gets more specific with an exacting test for whether the Iraq issue might play a role in the London bombings:

How do they know? What they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. Because if it was only an influencing motivational cause amongst others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then we don’t have that the London bombings wouldn’t have happened but for the Iraq war.

This seems all too carefully designed to yield the desired result. We may not have Iraq as a logical necessity, but we may still have it as a likely, strong contributing factor, depending on what is learned about the bombers and their leadership as time goes on. We can go further, with the familiar “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario, one that seems to be missing from Geras’ arguments. To wit, say the bombers were angry about events A, B, and C, but not motivated enough by them to criminally retaliate for them. Then if event D pushes them over the edge to committing crime X, then event D has had a causative role in X, if not a deterministic one.

I don’t deny that the London bombers were criminals and villains. Yet Geras makes it far too easy on himself to deny that an Iraq war begun on false premises (and continued on a highly problematic ‘flypaper’ premise — one that seems quite ruthless in its own way) may have been a key motive for the bombers and/or their handlers. Does it “dissipate” the wrongdoers’ responsibility to discuss that? Or must one button one’s lip when a cost of failed policies may have become apparent, lest one give aid and comfort to the enemy? (I agree a decent moratorium ought to be observed, but Geras doesn’t leave it at that.)

I won’t take up the specific ‘apologies’ that Geras objects to — because Geras doesn’t himself. Instead, his piece is a jeremiad against the enterprise as such, and as he defines it, that to my eye winds up smearing reasonable arguments in the process of condemning unreasonable ones. In a subsequent post, Geras approvingly cites an article by Tony Parkinson, who argues,

A mindset that can target innocent tube travellers in London is the same mindset that can dispatch a suicide bomber to kill 24 Iraqi children as they accept sweets from US forces in a Baghdad neighbourhood . . . or, indeed, force a Kuwaiti woman to eat her own flesh.

Conceding strategic victories to this mindset will not protect a single innocent life, in Iraq, the West or elsewhere. More likely, it will embolden those behind these acts of savagery.

These are ruthless mindsets, indeed, but they were different ones with different antecedents. I think folding them all into one and effectively ruling it off-limits to discuss why any of these people did what they did is neither democratic nor helpful in the long run. It may objectify the victims of the London attacks quite as much to use them as arguments for “staying the course” in Iraq as it does to use them against that policy — and Geras and Wilkinson both veer perilously close to that.

I really hate to say this, because I once supported waging war on Iraq, based on my conviction that Saddam could not be allowed to have WMD or WMD programs. But I think whatever the case turns out to be with the July 7 bombers, a new variety of “root cause” arguments are becoming less and less “dodgy” in the wake of the Iraq war: a war waged in large part on false premises going in, a war waged in large part on morally problematic premises (“flypaper”) now, and a war waged with methods that denied the human dignity and rights of Iraqis. We are creating reasons to be hated. It won’t guarantee safety, and terrorists will continue to plague us, but the sooner we stop that, the safer we’ll be.*

We can’t honestly object to our foes justifying their misdeeds — or simply denying that they are misdeeds — if we are doing the same. But if we are in a struggle with a ‘mindset,’ hypocrisy doesn’t just shame us, it amounts to a strategic error, since it devalues our own mindset in the eyes of the unstable, uncommitted, hostile, and/or disaffected, and even among ourselves. It helps recruit foes and alienate friends.

Conversely, acknowledging (and remedying) our own failings need not amount to apologizing for theirs, even if we reasonably hope that such remedies may reduce hostility. This, I think, is not merely a view — a “wretched apologium” — that I’m “entitled to hold.” I think it is as important to our eventual success against Al Qaeda-style Islamist terrorism as the equally necessary firm resolve to forcefully oppose those terrorists.

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* I’ll appear to contradict myself, but I think there are good and honorable reasons to remain in Iraq. But they are purely and simply connected to giving the democratic process there a decent chance — not to forward bases, permanent bases, oil, or “flypaper.” I’m not for a timetable, but I am for milestones — elections held, units trained, trials completed. We should plan to respond to each milestone with troop reductions, so that everyone sees a way out.

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