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.

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