The Myth of Moral Equivalence
When the Cold War was at its height, there was a corresponding ideological war taking place: a war of ideas. Those on the radical left tried to convince us that there really was no difference between a free and democratic West, and totalitarian Communism. I remember debating many of these lefties back in the 80s.
They were convinced that the US and Ronald Reagan were morally just as bad as the Soviet Union and their dictators. Of course many were even convinced of the superiority of communism. But those who tried to argue that the two political systems were on a par were engaging in both sloppy thinking and mushy moralising.
What they were promoting came to be known as the doctrine of Moral Equivalence. They tried to argue that there was a moral equivalence between totalitarian regimes and democratic nations. Of course more sober minds knew better, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall helped to demolish the myth of Moral Equivalence.
The truth is, no one was trying to make their way into East Germany or into the communist world. But millions of people were desperately trying to flee the chains of communist tyranny, even at the risk of their own lives. They were voting with their feet. They knew far better than the Western armchair intellectuals and ideologues that there was no moral equivalence between the two systems. Freedom and dictatorship have nothing in common.
Thus there was only one-way traffic during the Cold War: people seeking to escape Communist dictatorships. That fact alone should have put an end to the myth of Moral Equivalence.
Unfortunately, however, the ME myth is still with us, even after the end of the Cold War. You see, there is still plenty of foolish thinking and moral myopia around these days, and there is also plenty of Anti-Americanism. So the myth of Moral Equivalence has resurfaced, this time in the context of the war on terror.
There are now plenty of Western leftists seeking to argue that America is just as much a terrorist state as are such groups as Al Qaeda. We in the West are just as guilty as the suicide bombers, they try to convince us. American foreign policy in the Middle East, we are told, is no better than the attacks of 9/11.
Indeed, for many leftists, America and the West are not just morally equivalent to the terrorists, but in many cases are in fact worse. Thus we have the same old ideological disconnect with reality coming from those on the far left.
And of course it is not just secular left-wingers who make these foolish claims. Some religious leftists also try to make them. Because they seem incapable of distinguishing between legitimate taking of life and murder, they see all uses of force as identical. Thus in their jaundiced eyes, national self-defence is seen as just as reprehensible as a suicide bombing. But on these issues, I have written elsewhere.
Chuck Colson had an informative opinion piece in yesterday’s Breakpoint, highlighting some of these differences. He begins, “What difference does a worldview make? Around the world, we are seeing the clash of civilizations in action. In recent days, that clash has given us a story of life, and stories of death. In Baghdad yesterday, a terrorist blew himself up with a car bomb, killing at least twenty-eight people and wounding dozens more. One witness told the Associated Press that pieces of human flesh were scattered all around the marketplace.”
He goes on to recount other stories of Islamist slaughter. “In all three cases,” he says, “Muslims blew up Muslims. The response of Europe and the Muslim world to the stories of death? Outrage? No. Silence. Did the Western press condemn them? No.”
But contrast this with another story as reported by one American television network: “NBC has been running a gripping series on the emergency military triage facilities in Iraq. Last Thursday, NBC showed wounded Iraqi insurgents being brought to Camp Speicher near Tikrit. Two of them had been caught placing an explosive device on a nearby road, intending to kill Americans, when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on them. The U.S. medical team moved heaven and earth to save their lives. One insurgent, however, was not going to survive unless he got thirty pints of blood.”
“But the base was low on blood. The call went out for volunteer donors; minutes later, dozens of G.I.s had lined up. At the head of the line was a battle-hardened soldier named Brian Suam. Asked if it mattered that his blood was going to an insurgent, he smiled and said, no – ‘A human life is a human life’.”
He continues, “I have never seen a more dramatic example of worldviews in contrast, nor have I been prouder of an American G.I. On one hand, we have the horrors of a civilization that values death – even the death of its own children – if by killing them they can hurt the infidels. On the other side, we have a story that makes us realize just how deeply embedded within American life is our Judeo-Christian heritage. This heritage teaches that human life is sacred – even the life of an enemy who falls into our hands.”
Who says all worldviews are equal? “These stories make nonsense of the claim that there is no real difference between Christianity and Islam. The clash of civilizations is not only about a fundamental difference between ways of viewing God, reality, life, and life’s meaning; it’s also about good versus evil, life versus death.”
Of course such stories will not sway some of the hardened ideologues and members of the ‘America is always wrong’ crowd. But for those with more balanced moral outlooks, they will help to demonstrate that all cultures are not equal, all worldviews are not the same, and all religions do not lead to identical outcomes.
Concludes Colson, “Of course, this doesn’t apply to peace-loving Muslims, but to the radicals now surging in the Arab world. It’s time for the West to wake up. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times put it last week, there is no accepted source of Arab-Muslim authority today for peace-loving Muslims ‘to anchor their souls in.’ We need, Friedman writes, ‘a counter-terrorism strategy that delegitimizes suicide bombers.’ But that will happen only when Muslim leaders condemn violence. Friedman is right. We ignore the horrors of radical Islam to our peril. If we do nothing, in time, the stories of life will be overwhelmed by the stories of death.”
Moral equivalence, in other words, in an age of terrorism, is a silly and harmful doctrine that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible. Ideology must give way to reality, or we will all be facing much worse to come.