In writing the other day about the failure of logic displayed by Glenn Greenwald, I said I meant to return to something murkier in his thinking and I still mean to do this. But today Terry Eagleton has helped to break the task up into more manageable components, for he puts together a similar case - if such it can be called - to Greenwald's, regarding explanation and justification of terrorist atrocity, and the feebleness of the argument is so transparent as to merit quick dissection.
You can guess the first move: it's that some people 'imagine, in their muddled way, that to explain an event is to excuse it'. But how can this be? If it were so we would not have the activity of the dispassionate historian. Says Eagleton:
Do they also think this about the crimes of Hitler or Stalin? Are they really suggesting that historians who delve into the origins of fascism are secret Nazi sympathisers, or that to lay bare the causes of the Gulag is to exonerate its architects?
There's a short answer to this. No, there are two short answers. First, Eagleton is right: you can explain a bad event without being an apologist for it. But, second, you can also purport to explain something precisely in order to excuse it. Or: To understand is not necessarily to condone, yet it just might be. The logic here isn't difficult to grasp; not all people are academics, but some people are academics. Etc. It is also the case that what presents itself as historical explanation can sometimes have a plainly apologetic function. I recommend to Eagleton's attention the so-called Historians' Dispute - the Historikerstreit - in West Germany (as was) in the late 1980s, and the contributions to it in particular of Ernst Nolte.
Stand by now for a triumph of Eagletonian reason. To see some rationality in the vile action of another does not in itself justify the action and - wait for it - the alternative to recognizing some rationality there 'is to see such events as utterly without rhyme or reason, like some baffling Dadaist happening'. Or, again: 'if you deny your enemy any shred of rationality, you come perilously close to excusing him'. In other words, to deny the rational explanation proffered by the person himself, the one responsible for the bad action, and by the thousand commentators who accept the explanation at face value, is to forswear all possible rational explanation. As if there were only ever one candidate for a rational explanation.
Now, if a man says that he's butchered someone on the street because of... Afghanistan, it is then true, if he is not lying or self-deceived, that somewhere in the causal chain leading up to that murderous act Western intervention against Al-Qaida and the Taliban has played some part in bringing the atrocity about. But it is by no means a sufficient explanation, as you can quickly ascertain by starting to count up in your head all those angered or upset about Western intervention who haven't butchered anybody. At the same time, you can start to compute how many people responsible for jihadist terrorism today not only cite Afghanistan and/or Iraq but frame the reference within the terms of an Islamist ideology according to which the slaughter of innocents is an apt response to Western foreign policy. That's a very large number of people. It is also true, of course, that not all Islamists commit terrorist murder, so this isn't a complete explanation either, but you'd think the ideological factor should have some prominence.
A rational explanation of these acts is therefore available that places central emphasis on its ideological causes, and doesn't just parrot what the jihadists themselves say. And those leftists and liberals (verkrappt section) who always draw attention towards what the killers say and away from the belief system that inspires them are not just appealing to rational explanation, they are offering a very particular type of skewed 'explanation' that obscures a crucial element of the picture.
Imagine men who commit rape and say, 'I did it because she was asking for it; you should have seen how she was dressed, and flaunting herself, etc.' And Doc Tezzawald, of the College of the Fifth Light and sometime columnist of El Dragunia, says that one must concede some rationality to these men and to their explanation for their acts of violence against women, otherwise one has denied the possibility of rational explanation as such - even though plenty of men don't rape women, however dressed, and even though those who do do so justify their actions by reference to a pernicious belief system, to which Doc Tezzawald gives little prominence. His is the Tezzawald thesis, you see: that if zese guys say zis is why zey did it, zis must be why zey did it. You might want to recommend him a few readings in the philosophy of language. You might, come to think of it, suggest he read a novel or three, linking up to a tradition in which the subtleties of what people say and why they say it have been richly explored.
Here are two more contexts to think about. The Tezzawaldians, always quick to explain (without justifying) the likes of the Woolwich killing or of the Boston bombings, nearly never, if they ever, make any effort to explain (without justifying) the use by Western governments of torture and extraordinary rendition. They do not urge upon people the need to understand torture as a response to what the jihadists do, on the grounds that if we fail so to understand it, we'll lose all grip on rational explanation. And they're also very light on encouraging others to see that these rational killers seem not at all to get upset when, not Western governments, but their fellow Islamists kill Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and multiple other places.
But, you know, to explain is not to justify. Well, sometimes it isn't. But sometimes it is to condone or attempt to mitigate or get people to look away from what you don't want them to notice.