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Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

A very popular aphorism today is “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and this is at the heart of a kind of moral relativism.  In other words, one can make the case that evil is in the eye of the beholder.  We in the United States can point at Al qaeda as terrorists for their bombing of the Twin Towers as well as other acts of what we would call “indiscriminate” killing.  Others can point at the United States and call us terrorists for what we have done in Iraq, Vietnam and even the fire bombing of Tokyo during World War II.  These back and forth finger pointings are so numerous and could apply to so many countries and political groups that it would be virtually impossible to enumerate them all.  My question is whether evil exists and if it does how do we recognize and define it.

One of the most clear-cut cases of a country that nearly everybody would call evil is Hitler’s Germany.  Yet we cannot dismiss the fact that they lost World War II and that affects how they are viewed.  During Hitler’s reign, many millions of people thought of the Third Reich as a noble, progressive state.  Presumably if they had won the war, Hitler would still be thought of as a great man and a hero.  His slaughter of many millions of people (only a portion of which died in the infamous death camps) would be viewed in much the same way that we view American atrocities during our various wars, as an unfortunate but necessary implimentation of force in the name of “freedom.”

An interesting and very volatile current example of opposing points of view is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Many progressive and educated Americans see Israel as an aggressor on a par with South Africa’s apartheid regime.  Israel has even been compared to Nazi Germany and accused of genocide.  Those on the other side of the issue belief just as passionately that Israel is the victim, a tragic victim of circumstances.

What I would like to attempt in this blog is to define what is moral and immoral as applied to political groups and countries.  I think it is impossible to do this without some degree of subjectivity, but I will attempt to be as objective as I can.

First of all, I believe that what is moral and immoral can only be judged in the light of prevailing social norms during historical periods.  For example, we think it is not right to exclude women from participating in government.  Yet women have only had the right to vote in the U.S. for about a hundred years.  Prior to that should we say that the U.S. was an immoral state?  For hundreds of years Western European nations and the United States pursued an aggressive policy of colonization and imperialsm.  In a more limited way, this still goes on today, although it is generally looked upon with disfavor.  Were imperialist states of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including France, Holland, Britain and the United States evil empires?  This is something I would also like to explore.

Just fifty years ago, capital punishment was an acceptable practice in most first-world countries.  Today the United States is the last advanced country to practice it, along with countries that we look upon as backward.  Does this make the United States an immoral country, or do we simply lag behind European democracies, the way we did when we were late to abolish slavery?  This is what I mean by prevailing norms.  If the United States still practiced slavery today, it would be so far behind prevailing norms that we would be an immoral country.  State by state capital punishment will be abolished until it no longer exists in the U.S., or the federal courts will eventually ban it.  That is the direction of the prevailing norms, and no matter how much Americans protest that we are different from Europeans, we cannot get so far behind the prevailing norms that we are considered barbaric.

Several hundred years ago it was common for men to take child brides of thirteen.  Now it is considered perverted simply to think about it.  Countries that still accept this practice are considered outside the norm and there is tremendous outside pressure for them to change.  If we were to think about this rationally, one of the reasons that child brides used to be acceptable was that people died so young.  Also the rate of women dying in childbirth was extremely high.  Women’s main function in life was having and raising children, and often a man needed several succssive wives in order to develop a family.  It’s a very different story today.  Societies that look upon their women as subservient child producers are backward in many ways.  I think the most important way is that they have suppressed and wasted a very important resource in female intelligence. 

Along with the notion of women staying in the background and having children is men going to war.  I find it very interesting that seemingly gentle, religious people, who believe in traditional male-female roles, people who are extremely bothered by abortion, seem to have no problem with war (or capital punishment).  I think that is because they believe that wars protect the traditions that they consider so precious.  In fact, wars are part of that tradtion that they want to maintain and protect–a very old tradtion that I believe is dying fast.  If we don’t kill off all human life on the planet within the next century or two, I think war will go the way of slavery.  It will seem antiquated, like two stock brokers having a Colt .45 duel in the middle of Wall Street.

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