Section A by Norman Geras
In Section B of this post, Eve Garrard takes issue with an article by Joanna Bourke from Saturday's Guardian. Here I raise two other points than Eve does about the same article, points which complement hers.
First, Bourke argues that the rhetoric of freedom and democracy (in opposing fundamentalism and terrorism), of good versus evil and 'us' and 'them' dehumanizes those we are fighting against. It 'turns "them" into less than human'. It can certainly happen that people come to see their enemies as less than human; but nothing in what Bourke refers to here amounts to doing that. What she calls the rhetoric of freedom and democracy also corresponds to certain principles, procedures and institutions, and it is perfectly proper to defend the superiority of these over fundamentalist styles of belief and the practices of terrorism, because they are, as Joanna Bourke herself believes, superior (though I don't propose to spell out why in this post). Similarly, use of the notion of evil doesn't necessarily dehumanize anybody. Evil can be conceptualized in an entirely secular way, and indeed one of the prime sites of what it is meaningful to call 'evil' is the arena of politics and political conflict. In genocide, fascism and other forms of totalitarianism, racism, torture, terrorist murder, humankind should by now have familiarized itself with the evil men and women can do. We need to know that it is, precisely, human beings who do these things in certain circumstances, not monsters (except in the moral sense) or demons or devils. As for 'us' and 'them', this just isn't dehumanizing unless, for other reasons, it is.
Second, Joanna Bourke writes:
If fear induces British citizens to allow our government to introduce progressively repressive legislation, we have slid off our moral high ground and into the same abyss inhabited by the terrorist.Now, there is an important practical issue here, which should be discussed in a sober, practical way. It is the issue of the demands of people's individual rights and liberties, on the one hand, and the demands of securing them against the threat of terrorist attack, on the other. What special measures, if any, are justified in trying to meet this threat? I don't claim to know the answer to the question. I do know some of the things I think aren't justified: torture, so-called 'rendition', sending anyone back to a country where they are at risk of being tortured, long-term detention without trial. By the same token, I know that I think there should be clear limits set upon the freedom anyone has to incite murder.
That, to me, is the proper terrain of discussion. But vague talk about our sliding into the same moral abyss as is inhabited by the terrorist falls into the category of what I yesterday called low-level noise - left-liberal noise. I don't think Bourke herself believes it. She knows perfectly well that Britain today, even with some legislation more repressive than she would want to see, or be willing to accept as justifiable, is a long way from the 'abyss' of the mass murder of innocents, or from being the kind of illiberal regime that the perpetrators of such murder contemplate imposing on the rest of us. (Norman Geras)
Section B by Eve Garrard
Joanna Bourke, writing about the Government's proposed counter-terrorism measures, doesn't like stark moral oppositions, especially the one between good and evil. She thinks that terrorists use such oppositions, and she thinks that some elements in our response to terrorism involve them too:
[T]he rhetorical flourishing of words like democracy, freedom, fundamentalism and terrorism... threaten[s] to return us to the same stark and moralistic opposition that appears to guide the terrorists: this is a war of good versus evil.Bourke thinks this 'us versus them approach... threatens to blind us to our own acts of violence'. Well, there's some truth in the thought that we should never believe that our side is purely good, and their side unalloyed evil. The moral domain is always more complicated than that. But Bourke is attacking the contrast between good and evil itself, which she thinks leads to various bad outcomes, and this is a much stronger claim. (It's one which is not at all unusual among those who are hostile to the present government's policies on terrorism, as if the fact that people disagree about who is to count as good or evil somehow impugns the distinction itself.)
However, this attack on the distinction turns out to be strangely hard to sustain. Bourke thinks, broadly, that if we conceptualize things in such a 'stark and moralistic' way we deny 'the humanity and dignity of our enemies... and prepare the ground for the creation of more subhumans'. What we really need to do, she thinks, is make sure that our Government doesn't 'undermine the very values we are defending', by introducing the proposed counter-terrorism measures. And what will happen if it does introduce them? Why, we'll find that 'we have slid off our moral high ground and into the same abyss inhabited by the terrorist'.
As a substantive moral and political judgement, this seems to me to be deeply unconvincing. Even if such measures as holding people in custody for three months, and prohibiting the glorification of terror, are thoroughly misguided, they really aren't equivalent to blowing people up or beheading them on video (or off it), and I expect that most of the terrorists' victims would have chosen the former rather than the latter if they'd been given the chance, which of course they weren't. And far more argument than Professor Bourke provides would be needed to show that the proposed measures would inexorably lead to the kind of policies on torture which might approach moral equivalence with terror. But the truly interesting thing about Bourke's views is that they deploy the very opposition she is complaining about. She thinks that people who maintain democratic civil liberties occupy the moral high ground, which sounds pretty much like being on the good side. And she thinks that terrorists inhabit a moral abyss, which sounds a lot like what most people mean by evil. And she thinks that trading-off some of our liberties in the fight against terrorism will also take us into that abyss. So she resurrects the opposition between good and evil, though the main exemplars of that opposition with whom she's concerned in this piece are those who agree with her about civil liberties and those who agree with the government. (Apart from that location in the abyss, the terrorists don't actually get much of a look-in, other than as people to be protected from indignity and dehumanization.)
Bourke's rhetoric against the counter-terrorism proposals gets much of its force from the moral indignation which infuses it, an indignation which is expressed in just the kind of stark moralistic way which she objects to in others. What she really wants to do is criticize any trade-off between civil liberty and security, but rather than do the hard work of presenting arguments against the many and obvious objections to her views, which would be a genuinely interesting project, she tries to fortify her position with complaints (again, insufficiently argued) about the moral categories which many people use to think about these issues, categories which she then deploys herself, under the thinnest of cosmetic disguises. Attacks on the great moral concepts, such as good and evil, are very often like this: in order to press home the attack with real force, the critics end up by drawing on the very contrasts whose use by others they so insistently reject. (Eve Garrard)