How We Talk About Killing

In the wake of the recent attacks in and against Paris, a huge number of people made gestures of support and sympathy towards the people of France and spoke in condemnation of such evil.  A significantly smaller number, for motives as varied as the people themselves, took the opportunity to remind us of terror and horror across the world – Beirut, for example, or Yemen.

Much closer to home, the same weekend marked an infamous milestone for the city of Baltimore: three hundred and more homicides on the year, a number not seen (as such violent crimes have been generally declining) in over fifteen years – 1999 was cited by the news report I heard on the radio.  Yet few if any people outside the immediate area took much note.

Tourism, we are told – as predicted by things like hotel and airline reservations – will take a hit in Paris.  The overall result has been a heightening of fear.  And this fear is, were we to indulge in self-reflection, a fear all too familiar and close to home.  We tend to talk glibly about “bad neighborhoods” or “gang territory” when discussing areas where violent crime is common; or if less comfortable we phrase it to reflect assumptions and biases: “poor area” or “black neighborhood” are euphemisms commonly heard.  (Or perhaps we need a different word for these phrase which avoids unfriendly facts but only by adding in other unfortunate connotations.)

Or again, some politicians and organizations use these crimes (as well as individually more drastic events) as a prop when campaigning for tangential claims – both pro- and anti-gun lobbies propose their solutions would improve the situation, for example.  (I personally consider three things obvious about the firearms situation in America: first, that Americans cannot legally be deprived of their guns without far more effort – namely a Constitutional amendment – than any significant players seem to want to make; second, that as a culture we show no signs of being capable of the self-governance that deserves to be armed; and third, that those attempting the disarmament in recognition of that second fact are largely, if not responsible for it exactly, certainly also largely supportive of further liberty- and self-control-sapping tyrannies.)

Is it absurd to say that the criminal activity in many of America’s cities has the same net effect as terrorism?  Certainly few would say so publicly.  Yet one of the main effects of terrorism, fear and avoidance (by those able to do so) of the area perceived as threatened, is certainly there.  Then why do we not commonly see any of the other effects and reactions?  Where is the public determination to carry on as normal – and to return the area to normal?  Perhaps more troubling, where is the cry for justice?  Where is the minimum inclination, common to many “troubled” areas, to accept greater security – here, policing and self-policing would be necessary – at least until the threat abates?

I see a very strange situation, instead.  Virtually no one in recent years has attempted the security approach (and very oddly one who did, more or less successfully, has seen his work disavowed by his successor due to accompanying unintended consequences).  Those who have correctly identified the moral and cultural changes necessary tend not to be concerned, much less involved, with the areas damaged by such commonality of criminality.  And what is more, they are often told that such opinions are discriminatory, condescending, or similar – although we are seeing a slight improvement here, as a growing consensus is beginning to admit and discover, for instance, that removing men from a community to a jail seems to damage it.  Yet while we may rightly critique the mistakes of the attempted “justice”, fewer critics have yet made the obvious inference that perhaps training men, to be good men, might also be necessary.

In short, the people who know do not seem to care, the people who care do not seem to know – and the people stuck in the situation often seem to show little inclination (and may in any event have little ability and few resources) to achieve their own stable community, having been assured first by a kind of  patronization (with malevolent or benevolent intentions) and then by statism that somebody higher up can organize things better than themselves.

Meanwhile the talking heads talk about Syria.  I am not saying foreign policy is unimportant.  Such a contention would be foolish, especially with the various foreign entanglements made over the years – at the very minimum (I am not necessarily advocating this in its most drastic form) a plan would be necessary to withdraw wisely.  But I do very strongly suggest that the domestic problems – and by this I mean first the life or death problems, not the fads of bizarre “rights” alleged by pie-fingerers – ought to be much higher priorities than they are.

Criminal Acts

About two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the attacks by apparently ISIS-connected terrorists in Paris were an extreme kind of crime, “indiscriminate”.  We can explain them only in terms of an irrational hatred stemming from a worldview which sees only a good “us” and an evil “them” – and then to remain civilized ourselves we must refrain from simply inverting the classifications.

Kerry also said, quite rightly, that in contrast, crimes such as the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices were understandable in that one could perceive a rationale behind them.  Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists had in fact done something heinously wrong by the standards of the attackers.  One might even spectulate that had those offense not been against Islam but a different religion, or had the criminals been named Pierre and Jacques instead of Cherif and Said, or if terror threats were not a very real idea to most people in this age, that the attack might never have been considered “terrorism” at all.  But it was, more or less universally.

So when a man recently opened fire at a Planned Parenthood office, it is a little startling at first but not particularly odd to see sources as diverse as Mike Huckabee and MSNBC’s Melissa Harris suggesting that this crime should also be considered “terrorism”.  I believe nevertheless that this is an incorrect labeling.

Kerry was criticized for his remarks about the attack on Charlie Hebdo by many who seemed to think, or suspected Kerry of thinking, that an action which is explicable is therefore necessarily not immoral.  Kerry did not help his case by initially referring to “legitimacy” before correcting himself, but the confusion shown by his critics seems all too common today.  We are used to thinking of even great cultural differences as essentially all worth respect, attention, and study.  Therefore any position or act which we recognize as sufficiently evil – beyond even multicultural “tolerance” – is assumed to necessarily be irrational and inhumane: something not possible to analyze reasonably or participate in as (modern) humans.

But the flip side of this is that if we can understand an act, this means it must somehow be acceptable.  Thus I think we get the curious lenience shown to some criminals.  But this worldview is not sufficient to explain reality, and as a result, what crimes are culturally considered justifiable ends up curiously twisted in many cases – in some extreme cases, crimes end up protected by law.

Where there is no law to punish criminals, justice is taken into private hands.  It is of course the job of civilized men to construct and enact law as soon as possible; and to respect the laws, even when flawed, when they are present.  But when private persons see laws, but no laws protesting certain wrongs, it is all too tempting to enact individual “justice”.  Vulgar cartoons – or any cartoons – are to the serious Muslim blasphemous (they are not actually blasphemous, though they are both unnecessary and unwise due to this taboo); the murder of unborn infants is abhorrent to the morality both of Christianity and of the Natural Law (which depends on the axiomatic value of human life, or else is merely subjective).

Said Kouachi and Robert Dear are both criminals.  But we have a word for their kind of criminality already: it is not “terrorism”, but “vigilantism”.  Terrorism is a real threat and has really been acted out, both by “their” Islamic fundamentalists and by “our” own angry young men.  (One of the key insights which makes much multiculturalistic social criticism plausible is that we are not incapable of savagery by virtue of perceiving ourselves as civilized.)  But it does no good to start calling every murder of which we disapprove “terrorism”.  Distinctions ought to be preserved.