It’s hard to know where to begin.
The murder in England yesterday of an off-duty soldier by two Muslim extremists has left me almost speechless: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/may/22/woolwich-attack-horror-soldier
A part of me wants to dismiss it, actually; just one more random act of crazy in a world with billions of people, some of whom will go off the rails and do things like this.
The atheist in me wants to rail against religion. Of course, atheists are capable of terrible crimes, too, but at least they don’t have the option of claiming a divine blessing for their actions (Hey, did you hear? The new pope says atheists can be good, too: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/22/pope-francis-atheists-can-be-good).
The amoral pragmatist in me ponders questions like ‘What is war, what is terrorism and what is crime?’ This isn’t to say these murderous men were justified ambushing a soldier – they were not – But the challenge is to identify what exactly their litany of offenses includes: murder, terror, an enemy act of war? Can it be all three?
Unlike some rhetoricians whose livelihoods are derived from patriotic sloganeering, I happen to believe reality contains enough nuance that we can condemn a heinous act like the massacre of a soldier and also contemplate the effects our own actions, good and bad, have when we involve ourselves in foreign engagements.
This is not an argument for moral relativism (which I abhor). I have no qualms saying Western values are more advanced than the values of Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea or any number of other repressive countries where human rights are ignored with impunity. But it is stupidity to assume morally grey actions perpetrated by us or our allies – U.S. drone strikes, for example – can’t be used as propaganda to persuade the ignorant or obsessed to believe the West is evil.
I happen to believe targeted assassinations are a good way of waging war – although drone strikes may carry too hefty a price tag in civilian casualties – but I also recognize their pragmatic usefulness has a cost in reduced moral standing. If my loved one were the innocent ‘collateral damage’ of a drone strike, the moral calculus that justified the attack wouldn’t dissuade me from attempting to exact revenge on the perpetrators. That’s just human.
The law and order part of me thinks about the death penalty. I’m generally opposed to the death penalty, and that doesn’t change when a crime is more heinous. It does change, however, when the identity of a killer is absolutely, unequivocally established. My fear of the death penalty is fear of wrongful prosecution, and a residual reluctance to have the state kill citizens. In other words, I’m not squeamish about first-degree murderers dying. If the identity of these “alleged” killers is as clearly established as it appears to be – numerous witnesses, plus video footage, plus (inevitably) DNA evidence, plus law enforcement testimony – I’d be willing to shelve my dislike of the state apparatus putting its own citizens to death to see justice meted out to these two.
It was a strange, awful crime. Even in a world where strange, awful crimes happen, this one strikes me as particularly difficult. There's no "answer". You can't stop crimes like this - at least, not with any short-term action. You can't dictate foreign policy based on the acts of two zealots. Even putting them to death is an afterthought (they seem to have little fear of death, given they made no effort to avoid police).
Maybe it's an act of nature - human nature. Some of us will believe what we shouldn't believe, and a few of us will act on those beliefs in terrible ways. The rest of us just have to hope we're not there when it happens.