9/11,  Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  Ethics,  Gene Veith,  Jessica Stern,  Jürgen Habermas,  Karl Marx,  Martin Amis,  Moral Equivalence,  Speaking of Terror Part 5,  Terror

Speaking of Terror – Part V

Much of what was written after 9/11 and in the build up to war in Afghanistan and Iraq was about morality. A common theme posed by the secularist was the problem of moral equivalence. Moral Equivalence is a phrase used in political debate to describe those who deny any moral hierarchy in a conflict,1 it is the “100 percent and 360 degree inability to pass judgment on any ethnicity other than our own.”2
For example, when applied to religion, rather than nations, Christians are often perceived to be in the same boat as the Islamist as Veith notes:

Christians find themselves in a precarious position. While they believe the kingdom of heaven comes through evangelism, not jihad, their own culture may be turning against them. As noted by some of our leading thinkers, the evil of the Islamic terrorists consists of religious extremism. The only solution to the holy-war mentality and the Taliban assaults on human freedom is religious tolerance. In our country we also have religious extremists—those Christians who believe they have the only way to salvation, who believe in imposing their morality on others, or who oppose a woman’s right to abortion and the sick person’s right to die. There is no essential difference, they say, between an Islamic conservative and a Christian conservative. A comprehensive war against terrorism must stamp them both out.3 

Is it not this very line of thought, coupled with mention of genocide in Canaan and the Crusades, which leads to the conclusion that religion per se is a force for evil? Many, in the run up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, found it almost impossible to avoid moral equivalence. They considered the idea that we are on God’s side and that they are on Satan’s side, that the good must beat the bad, too judgmental.4 They imagined that the enemy, in this line of thought, would be dehumanized.5

In many parts of Europe during the build up to war it became impossible to blame Islamism for terror. And not because Islam was in any kind of ascendency (contrary to much paranoia), but because of secularism itself, especially of the materialist sort. If all is material cause and material effect then it is not attack by suicide bombers from outside the West which is the cause. Instead it is the suicide of the West caused by the West itself.6 Derrida deems 9/11 as a symptom of autoimmune disease – the West causes its own death even though it has no wish to die; it acts against itself.7 We all heard this message. Remember the accusations made about Western actions being the reason for Islamist acts of terror; that all the troubles of the Middle East were a result of Western meddling; as if Bin Laden himself was driven to terror by his own victim. But think of this another way: does this not expose the very assumption it wishes to purge – that Western post-colonial powers remain able to manipulate everyone to their own goals (even subconscious ones)? If the west remains powerful enough to cause its own death through actors outside national boundaries, then Bin Laden is no more than another puppet guided by western strings.8

Moral equivalence is only a problem if we believe that there is no perspective of moral purity and that every onlooker is equally immoral or equally moral. But God is not equivalent to anything. He is, rather, holy and without blemish. He can have no moral equivalent and is untouched by evil. It is from his revelation and our obedience which we can pass his judgment, his condemnation of acts of terror. All moral categories carry weight because they are God’s moral categories.

And how else can we determine who is the evil? Certainly not the enemy as Stern notes: “What is so deeply painful about terrorism is that our enemies, whom we see as evil, view themselves as saints and martyrs”9 Yet we all know that to fly the planes into the towers is evil. How would we know this? Is it through experiment? Through experiment we can say that most people would probably feel pain in losing a loved one, that jumping from the tower to escape the flames is almost certainly unpleasant for most people. But we cannot say that it is wrong.

Rather, we must suspend our autonomous judgment. I do not mean that we no longer think, but that we think in accordance with God’s thinking. It is the mark of fallen man that we make ourselves the judge of good and evil, that we claim moral omniscience. Bonhoeffer writes:

Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin… [Man] knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he can know only himself and no longer knows God at all; for he can know God only if he knows only God… But man cannot be rid of his origin. Instead of knowing himself in the origin of God, he must now know himself as an origin. He interprets himself according to his possibilities, his possibilities of being good or evil, and he therefore conceives himself to be the origin of good and evil.10

In recognizing the absolute goodness and absolute moral authority of God in all matters we can then make moral judgments rightly. There is now no going back, no return to the origin, at least not to Eden. Yet in Christ, in being re-born, there is neogenesis. For Bonhoeffer, the return to origin is the justification of the sinner before God through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the participation with Christ that man surrenders his position as judge and becomes one who again receives the will of God in Christ. 

1“Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Muqtada al-Sadr, Osama bin Laden – all cut from the same cloth, so to speak” in Brandon Crocker, “Moral Equivalence Rides Again” The American Spectator (2005) .
2Martin Amis, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 197.
3Gene Veith, Christianity in an Age of Terrorism (St. Louis: Concordia, 2002), 16.
4Lee Griffith suggests that terrorism has not always been perceived in such negative terms. The French Revolution, for example, honored terror alongside virtue. To be a revolutionary, in the Jacobin mood, was to be a terroriste. Terrorism, having been given a negative interpretation by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, ceased to be an activity of the ruling class. It was now confined to those who sought to subvert governance. Consequently, terrorism became the tactic of the anarchist, who opposed all authority – God and state. The nineteenth century largely deemed terrorism as acts against colonial rule. Griffiths argues that during the twentieth century this distinction between acts of the state and acts intended to subvert the state became difficult to maintain. How, for example, are we to describe the acts of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia? If we say their acts were of the terrorist types, we are left with no option but to judge all acts of the state in such a fashion: Abu Ghraib is synonymous with the gulags which are synonymous with 9/11. This, concludes Griffiths, is exactly what we should be doing. Lee Griffith The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 7-18.
5Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: Ecco, 2004), xxviii.
6Some, like Habermas and Zizek, suggested that 9/11 was a culmination of a phantasy in the American psyche expressed in Hollywood action movies: “everything was not Hollywood anymore, but, rather, a gruesome reality.” Habermas in Borradori, 28.
7Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, implied that the bourgeoisie actually provided the tools for revolution through state sponsored education programs: “The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground and now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians” from Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Pelican, 1985), 87.
8And, as history continues to prove, the trail of cause and effect will eventually point back to the Middle East, but not to Arab lands. It will point to Israel, the final venting point for abstraction.
9Stern, xxviii.
10Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), 21-22.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.