Sunday, July 29, 2007

Daniel Pearl's father on A Mighty Heart

TNR:By Judea Pearl

...This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell in 1901, which shook the logical foundations of mathematics. Any person who claims to be tolerant naturally defines himself in opposition to those who are intolerant. But that makes him intolerant of certain people--which invalidates his claim to be tolerant.

The political lesson of Russell's paradox is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance. Ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain groups or ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance and inclusivity. One should, in fact, condemn and resist political doctrines that advocate the murder of innocents, that undermine the basic norms of civilization, or that seek to make pluralism impossible. There can be no moral equivalence between those who seek--however clumsily--to build a more liberal, tolerant world and those who advocate the annihilation of other faiths, cultures, or states.

Which brings me to my son, Daniel Pearl. Thanks to the release of A Mighty Heart, the movie based on Mariane Pearl's book of the same title, Danny's legacy is once again receiving attention. Of course, no movie could ever capture exactly what made Danny special--his humor, his integrity, his love of humanity--or why he was admired by so many. ...Traces of these ideas are certainly evident in A Mighty Heart, and I hope viewers will leave the theater inspired by them.

At the same time, I am worried that A Mighty Heart falls into a trap Bertrand Russell would have recognized: the trap of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far. You can see hints of this in the film's comparison of Danny's abduction to Guantánamo--it opens with pictures from the prison--and its comparison of Al Qaeda militants to CIA agents. You can also see it in the comments of the movie's director, Michael Winterbottom, who wrote on The Washington Post's website that A Mighty Heart and his previous film, The Road to Guantánamo, "are very similar. Both are stories about people who are victims of increasing violence on both sides. There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."

Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detainment of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their e-mails and the murder video. Obviously Winterbottom did not mean to echo their sentiments, and certainly not to justify their demands or actions. Still, I am concerned that aspects of his movie will play into the hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity.

Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart, a panelist representing the Council on American-Islamic Relations reportedly said, "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film." The message that angry youngsters are hearing is unfortunate: All forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out. This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddiqui Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his 2005 videotape on Al Jazeera. "Your democratically elected governments," he told Westerners, "continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people. ... [W]e will not stop this fight."

Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts--no ifs, ands, or buts. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31, 2002.

There was a time when drawing moral symmetries between two sides of every conflict was a mark of original thinking. Today, with Western intellectuals overextending two-sidedness to reckless absurdities, it reflects nothing but lazy conformity. What is needed now is for intellectuals, filmmakers, and the rest of us to resist this dangerous trend and draw legitimate distinctions where such distinctions are warranted.

1 comment:

Alan Jay Weisbard said...

This posting attracted some nasty comments, including personal invective directed at Judea Pearl, which I am not prepared to post.

While Prof. Pearl's comments associating the death of moral relativism with the death of his son are subject to multiple interpretations, and perhaps might better have been phrased a bit differently (perhaps relating to his own experience and perceptions), I see no evidence, here or elsewhere, that Prof. Pearl is indifferent to the suffering of others. His broader point that we should "draw legitimate distinctions where such distinctions are warranted" is persuasive to me as stated, although persons of good will, acting in good faith, may, of course, disagree as to certain of its applications.
For myself, I am not inclined to sympathize with intellectualized justifications for the deliberate use of terror, or of torture, by Al Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Israel, the United States, or anyone else. Full stop.