Moral Relativism, or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

As I write this, I see many people on the twitters and facebooks posting a quote supposedly from Martin Luther King Jr, which posits:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Not forgeting Gahndi’s

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

Or Yoda’s

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”

The US spent 14 years and over $1 Trillion finding Bin Laden, and surrrprise surprise, he was shot while resisting capture. “Dead or Alive”, as George W put it. All we can do now is move forward and make change you can believe in, erm, amends, and try to not let it happen again. Yeah, right.

Yoda was spot on, for the record.

It probably goes without saying for most of you reading this, that you are aware that morality is relative, based on where you’re standing. Some people though, don’t agree/quite remember that Right and Wrong are moral choices. For the most part, it is difficult to judge people based on morality other than your own. Sure, as society we have moral standards, but many are not rigidly black and white, there’s a lot of gray.

Given the audience I have for this post, I’ll put this out here – chances are, you’re not American. Some of you are, sure, but you’re more likely to be either Australian, Canadian or “other” (Hi Rosie!). The fact is, they are a different culture. Sure, there are plenty of similarities, similar language, but we do have individual identities. Thankfully.

As a trope, many people think of blood magic as inherently evil, regardless of the intent.

Many people think that about celebrating a death too, regardless of the victim. It’s just something you _don’t do ever_.

And you’re allowed to think that, regardless of why. Such is your own individual moral choice. But this is one of those areas for me where it’s a grey area of morality. Celebrating a death isn’t going to make someone more dead. How many layers of abstraction do you need to place between a death and the results of someone’s passing before it becomes ok to say that the change is good? Does that abstraction really do any good? Aren’t they still morally the same?

What is the difference between saying “I’m glad SEAL team six launched a 40 person assault on a compound in Abbotobad Pakistan and shot Osama Bin Laden in the eye” and saying “I’m glad that Al-Qaeda no longer has a definitive figurehead”? I see them as equivalent, if somewhat differently phrased ways of portraying the same thing.

Let me Godwin this out for you: how is “I’m glad the Nazi’s were defeated” different from “I’m glad allied troops took back Europe from Nazi forces by killing anyone who didn’t surrender?”.

If you launch a war of aggression, and murder thousands of innocent civilians, you and I clearly have some different opinions on how to influence people and what is right and proper behaviour, and I’m happy for you to be dealt with under your own moral code.

I’m sad that they were unable to capture Osama Bin Laden and bring him to trial, however his moral views would have had no problem with the manner of his death, and if he didn’t mind, I don’t believe we should either. There are more important things to address now. Reducing everything to soundbites and metaphor reduces the ability to rationally discuss, but.. “live by the sword, die by the sword”. He styled himself as a warrior, who brought death to innocents, on the assumption that he would one day die, preferably in battle.

I saw comments calling for his body to smeared with pigs blog and strung up outside the White House. Some people over-react, and I’m happy with calling them out for it to. The US did the right thing in giving him a mostly religiously appropriate burial. In much the same way that the location of Hitler’s death is now a parking lot, you would not want his burial location to be used as a shrine. It showed their respect for his religion, even if he corrupted that religion for his own ideals.

The actual operation raises a number of questions – particularly about Pakistan’s sovereign rights to not have US armed forces kill people inside its borders, but the dynamic of terrorism and how to fight it is not one that respects diplomatic norms. I’m sure the US will say sorry and promise that if they ever have to catch-or-kill Osama Bin Laden again, they’ll ask first. But they’re not going to say anything about Mullah Omar. It’s all very well to use the Niemoller quote of “at first they came for the X [..] then when they came for me, there was no-one left”, but it’s not a slope that is that slippery. For anyone else, they’ll just get your government to extradite you.

The information that lead to this assault apparently came out of a US detainee. I don’t know where, and I don’t know how. I’m hoping it wasn’t torture, because there are fates worse than death, and that is one of them. We are the good guys, we shouldn’t do that. I am hoping that the reason Guantanamo Bay was kept open this long was because they got it from someone in there, and they did not want that person talking before they could act on it. Wikileaks very nearly gave the game away, last week releasing a report mentioning a courier for Osama Bin Laden based out of Abbottabad.

I’ll put it out there: I’m against the death penalty, I’m not in favour of wars of aggression, and I’m glad he has been “neutralised”, however it occurred. In this case, I think the ends justify the means, as they sometimes do, and that’s a moral call on my part. I know I couldn’t be the guy going in with the SMG killing people, but that’s why I’m not in the military. This is also why we have a military, to do distasteful things on our behalf.

Were I in Obama’s place and had the head of the CIA come up to me and say “We’re 99.99% sure we’ve found Bin Laden. Can I send a 40 man team into Pakistan to capture or kill him?”, I’m confident I would say yes. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

Conventional wisdom/morality is easy to understand because we’ve seen the paths that decisions lead in, the normal ones and the outliers. We know the risks. The problem is that there are situations where normal morality doesn’t apply easily, because the questions are so uncommon that there is not an adequate amount outcomes to evaluate. The classic questions here are the ticking timebomb/torture scenario and survival lottery scenarios. By not taking the morally reprehensible option, you are making things far worse than the consequences of taking the option.

I’m glad that the news of his defeat has helped give closure to many in the US and around the world who were affected by his acts. If 300 of your co-workers were killed on someone’s orders, wouldn’t you be at least a little bit glad to see him gone? How about 3000 people from your town? Your city? At what point does it become not ok?

Bin Laden was more than a person to many on both sides of the equation. The inability to catch or kill him gnawed at the western world, but particularly the American consciousness. He was the boogeyman strawman in so many positions taken by people, both good and bad, to justify their actions, both good and bad. I have great anger towards him for the measures our governments have taken in his name that erode our freedoms and civil liberties. I’m not thrilled with them either, but we have elections, a way to theoretically make them change. I am glad he now cannot be used as an argument to influence, as it will be a harder sell to continue them in the future.

The biggest surprise to me was as Obama announced the details of his death. I was expecting something along the lines of “grave/bones found/dna testing complete”. I thought he was long dead. The fact he was killed in the last 72 hours is something I can’t get over.

What I’m really looking forward to is what happens next. We’ve killed the bogeyman. Job well done, now let’s get rid of all the blankets we put up to keep him out.