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‘Moral clarity’ and violence, in Iraq and elsewhere

Oliver Kamm, a British writer and blogger, criticizes with his usual style and vigour an academic, Professor Ron Greaves, who has called the July 2005 London bombings an act of “demonstration” instead of “terrorism”. Kamm is right to find this absurd. However, his argument does not stop there. He writes:

Moral clarity on terrorism requires distinguishing the force used by the democratic state from the violence of private armies. […] It is true […] that the word terrorism is used politically in order to denote illegitimacy of certain types of violence. And there’s much to be said for that, as there is for referring (as I have done in this post) to the “force” exercised by the security services of a democratic state as against the “violence” of those arraigned against democratic authority. To do this is […] to use language discriminately where moral discrimination is essential. The democratic state uses violence, and terrorists use violence; but these acts are not alike.

They’re not alike, we are to understand, because state violence is democratically legitimized. Well, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that tens of thousands of civilians were to be killed by a country whose leader became President after the Supreme Court instructed a state to stop counting votes. Would that bless anything he chose to do with the nimbus of democracy?

That can’t be it. Let us imagine what might better justify the qualitative distinction between types of violence. There must at base be an implied appeal to accident. Acts of terrorism such as the atrocity committed by the July 2005 London bombers deliberately kill civilians. State acts of “force”, in Kamm’s formulation, may cause the killing of civilians as, in the disgusting Unspeak has it, “collateral damage”: an unfortunate side-effect of the effort to kill the enemy. In each case, the civilians are just as dead. But we didn’t really mean to kill the second lot, so it’s not so bad.

Those who wish to argue that state violence is always especially legitimate are obliged to explain exactly how much of a moral fig-leaf this appeal to accident provides. They will need to respond to the idea that to deliberately commit an act with foreseeable consequences is to intend those very consequences, among any others that might also be under consideration. The point was made powerfully by an Israeli air-force captain, among one of 30 who refused to continue bombing Palestinian cities in 2003, after the dropping of a one-tonne bomb on the home of Hamas leader Salah Shehade had killed him along with 14 members of his family, mostly children. Captain Assaf L said (cited in Unspeak, page 132):

You don’t have to be a genius to know that the destruction from a one-tonne bomb is massive, so someone up there made a decision to drop it knowing it would destroy buildings. Someone took the decision to kill innocent people. This is us being terrorists.

For Kamm, however, any such conclusion must be forbidden by “moral clarity”. It is an interesting rhetorical paradox that the phrase “moral clarity” usually signals the introduction of a double standard, an attempt to split morality into a twin-track system whereby, for instance, “they” are evil, and “we” just make mistakes. In this sense, “moral clarity” is really moral relativism: if you criticize us, we will just point over there and remind you of how bad they are . . .

The phrase “moral relativism”, however, is usually reserved in public language to denounce anyone who dares to suggest that the death of an Iraqi human being is somehow comparable to the death of a British or American human being.

Contra Kamm, something that really deserved the name “moral clarity” would require us to recognize both that the victims of July 2005 were killed by a despicable act of terrorism, and that the children of Salah Shehade were not somehow less unfortunate in being killed by mere “force”. Those children were blown up by plain, brute “violence” as surely as were the people on the London buses and tube trains. We might even recognize further that many state acts of “force” are designed and described in explicitly terroristic terms, such as the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign that began the Iraq war.

In Kamm’s recently published book, Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, which offers one of the most intellectually respectable pro-war arguments available, he waves away arguments about the civilian death toll in Iraq on the grounds that such talk is “consequentialist”. But this won’t do, since all his arguments in favour of the invasion are consequentialist, too: he just wants the good consequences, such as ridding the country of a vicious dictator, having a free Iraq as a beacon of hope in the Middle East, etc, without having to worry about the bad consequences, such as the deaths of 33,821 Iraqi civilians since the invasion, according to the conservative minimum current estimate of Iraq Body Count.

A substantial civilian death toll is an entirely predictable and inevitable consequence of any modern invasion. Wanting to go to war thus entails willing those deaths, even if you don’t know in advance which individuals exactly you are going to kill, or exactly how many of them. An honest argument for war must thus explicitly say that an unavoidable death toll of some magnitude is “worth it”, in the face of other overwhelming reasons to use violence – sorry, I mean of course “force”. Doubtless it was worth it, for instance, against Hitler, and Kamm spends an illuminating portion of his book analysing the shameful refusal of the British left in the later 1930s to acknowledge this. But Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, much as he might have liked to be, and George W. Bush is no Churchill, despite the fact that his speechwriters have lately taken to borrowing Churchill’s cadences. (“We will fight them in Iraq, we’ll fight them across the world…” Bush said recently in Cleveland. No doubt we were meant subliminally to think of fighting them on the beaches, too.)

Was, then, the civilian death toll in Iraq an acceptable evil in pursuit of a larger good? In his book, Kamm will only say, coyly: “[T]he civilian death toll appears to have been substantially higher than the war’s supporters generally expected.” Oops! The reader might decide that such an appeal to surprise is not a very convincing defence, in terms of “moral clarity” or otherwise.

Near the end of his blog article, Kamm returns to the democratic fig-leaf in an appeal to an argument by Conor Cruise O’Brien, whom he cites approvingly as saying:

[T]he use of violence by the democratic state is subject to scrutiny and criticism, and abuses can be punished and corrected.

If a democratic state kills tens of thousands of civilians, is that an “abuse”? And if it is, how might it be “corrected”? How, alternatively, can the torturing to death (by the repetitive administration of, yes, “force”) of people in Bagram, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere be “corrected”, from the point of view of the victims and their families and friends? If such “correction” is possible, we will have to agree with Kamm that “force” is indeed something special and different from the bad guys’ “violence”: the magic power of “democracy”, it seems, can even bring people back from the dead. 

  1. 1  SW  April 7, 2006, 12:43 pm 

    “Moral clarity” gets called upon when situations are complicated, when motives are partly opaque, and the conflict between the various parties is going to get messy; it is not so much that it introduces a double-standard (which it certainly can do) as it unspeaks the murkiness and complexity of a situation.

    While “clarity” pretends that the water is potable, “Moral” forces you to drink it.

  2. 2  dsquared  April 9, 2006, 1:31 pm 

    I think it was the author of the “Lenin’s Tomb” blog who gave the definitive account:

    “Moral relativism” is the completely unacceptable proposition that the USA should be held to a different standard from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

    “Moral equivalence” is the completely unacceptable proposition that the USA should be held to the same standards as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

    “Moral clarity” is the perfect Zen-like state from which it is possible to excoriate one’s opponents for the sins of both moral relativism and moral equivalance.

  3. 3  StuartA  April 10, 2006, 4:18 pm 

    I was surprised to see you taking Kamm seriously in the Guardian, and I’m even more surprised now that you pick up on his strange claims regarding democratic legitimation of state violence.

    Having written “Unspeak”, surely it’s obvious to you that Kamm’s schtick is essentially one of simplistic argument by assertion cloaked in misleading and pompous declarations?

    I’m not even sure he has anything much he wants to say. The posting on which you comment seems more designed to show that he’s read Conor Cruise O’Brien than to make any substantive point, much like another recent posting was largely made to allow some quoting of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the tedious Chomsky letter was a way of loudly re-asserting his loathing of Chomsky.

    All I’ve seen from Kamm are a stream of affected, portentous pronouncements, unaccountably indulged by The Times, and now the Guardian. His success as a commentator baffles.

  4. 4  David Duff  April 11, 2006, 8:29 pm 

    Not for the first time I’m baffled. Am I right to detect a note of pacifist censor against *all* forms of warfare? If so, there is no arguing with you because the pacifist creed, if applied absolutely without exception, is beyond debate. Or, in your ‘I’m-cleverer-than-Kamm’ at hair-splitting of words, are you, in effect, agreeing with me that the entire notion of morality playing any part in international affairs is silly, putting it as mildly as I can? Somehow I don’t think that is what you meant but that is what you indicated.

  5. 5  Steven Poole  April 12, 2006, 12:47 pm 

    The incontinent charge of “pacifism” is, of course, the last refuge of the rhetorically bellicose.

    Naturally, it is not “pacifism” merely to point out the fact that going to war inevitably involves killing many people, and so is a very grave decision.

    Meanwhile, the post is actually a rebuttal of “hair-splitting”, inasmuch as it argues a distinction between “force” and “violence” to be untenable.


  6. 6  resistor  April 12, 2006, 3:17 pm 

    The other assumption that Kamm/Blair make is that the alleged ‘end’ (removal of Saddam Hussain – WMDs not getting much of a mention) justifies the means (illegal war, death and destruction)

    The same argument can also be used by anyone using terrorist methods in a good cause. The difference being that more people have been killed in the Iraq war than by all the terrorists in history.

  7. 7  David Duff  April 12, 2006, 10:00 pm 

    Steven, there was nothing “incontinent” in my so-called “charge of pacifism”, not least because no such charge was made! I began by admitting my bafflement and was merely seeking to find our host’s true meaning. If indeed you are right, and “the post is actually a rebuttal of “hair-splitting”, inasmuch as it argues a distinction between “force” and “violence” to be untenable”, then my second tentative and wholly continent theory, that our host agrees with me, in believing that there is no place for ‘morality’ in international affairs, is, presumably, spot on.

    Or let me put it simply. Splitting hairs, or even logs, over what exactly and precisely defines ‘violence’ and ‘force’ is the stuff of ‘bien pensants’ and long may it keep them happy. Meanwhile, in the real world, ‘princes’ will do what Machiavelli advised so presciently, that is, whatever it takes to achieve the objective and hold it!

  8. 8  Steven Poole  April 12, 2006, 10:29 pm 

    Dear David,

    I am at a loss to understand how you get from “a distinction between ‘force’ and ‘violence’ is untenable” to the idea that “there is no place for ‘morality’ in international affairs”.

    It strikes me that the question of when violence may or may not be justified is still rather a large moral question.


  9. 9  David Duff  April 14, 2006, 2:25 pm 


    Violence/force (delete as necessary if you’ve nothing better to do), may strike you as a rather large question, but not me, at least, not in the context of pursuing national interests in which morality has no part to play except, occasionally, as a device for attempting to win Brownie points with those impressed by shows of such things. Of course, those who *are* impressed are the public in general and idealists in particular. However, in the Chancelleries of the world it cuts no ice at all, in fact it won’t even cut the tissue paper upon which your last abiding treaty of friendship was signed!

  10. 10  Jim in Cala Dor Palma de Mallorca  October 1, 2006, 2:40 pm 

    My comment is non-expert, but citizen sanity in support of your anti-war positions generally, and emphasis on the illegality of Bush’s War declaration as properly viewed as NOT representing America, and NOT the duty of the authority bestowed to the President who is to adhere to Congress as the true body representing the people in times of war.

    Unprovoked war is certainly not wanted by a majority of Americans.

    I have written in 1985 for the FREEZE as a volunteer, and had the opportunity to interview what was then named “Beyond War Movement” out of California, locally represented by a Hartford Physician who was a member of the Beyond War movement, and noted the theme “War is Obsolete” due to the technology as being entirely out of proportion and not a proper conflict resolution. At that time, in 1985, “new modes of thinking” was what they claimed was needed.

    My layman’s non-expert view, with a pre-eminent attorney, Ralph Nader as a Proper Presidential candidate offering anti-war DIPLOMACY and withdrawal of the troops and humanitarian aid as the immediate need in Iraq–is that sanity (The Freeze in 1985, soon thereafter changed their name to SANE/FREEZE and is now PEACEACTION, and likewise, the Beyond War Movement has changed to Global Community-at my last check, which is not current…the themes are solid…stop the production of nuclear weapons applied to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and still DOES! and the theme of the Beyond War movement that WAR IS OBSOLETE, is actually not only long overdue in 1985, but a proper view of human civilization. Civilized people should not expect to declare war, but instead seek diplomacy as the proper view of international policy as a FACT and CONSTANT.

    The U.S. is not supposed to be a “warmonger.” We are supposed to be a self-sufficient, self-governing country properly attending to our own affairs.

    Iran should be dealt with at the international level, and that is a proper place for attorneys to tender legal diplomacy. The U.N. is a great forum for proper intelligent, civilized, and self-respecting conversations about each country’s proper position in this field of “nuclear weapons” which are supposed to be STOPPED.

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