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Moral Relativism and A Mighty Heart

Moral Relativism and A Mighty Heart

Moral relativism died with my son Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31, 2002.


I used to believe that the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant; and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the forces of tolerance could win out over the forces of intolerance, I reasoned, the world might finally know some measure of peace.

But there was a problem with my theory, and it was never clearer than in a conversation I once had with a Pakistani friend who told me that he loathed people like President Bush who insisted on dividing the world into "us" and "them." My friend, of course, was taking an innocent stand against intolerance, and did not realize that, in so doing, he was in fact dividing the world into "us" and "them," falling straight into the camp of people he loathed.

This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell in 1901, which shook the logical foundations of mathematics. Any person who claims to be tolerant naturally defines himself in opposition to those who are intolerant. But that makes him intolerant of certain people -- which invalidates his claim to be tolerant.

There is no such thing as unqualified tolerance.

The political lesson of Russell's paradox is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance. Ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain groups or ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance and inclusivity. One should, in fact, condemn and resist political doctrines that advocate the murder of innocents, that undermine the basic norms of civilization, or that seek to make pluralism impossible. There can be no moral equivalence between those who seek -- however clumsily -- to build a more liberal, tolerant world and those who advocate the annihilation of other faiths, cultures, or states.

Which brings me to my son, Daniel Pearl. Thanks to the release of A Mighty Heart, the movie based on Mariane Pearl's book of the same title, Danny's legacy is once again receiving attention. Of course, no movie could ever capture exactly what made Danny special -- his humor, his integrity, his love of humanity -- or why he was admired by so many. For journalists, Danny represents the courage and nobility inherent in their profession. For Americans, Danny is a symbol of one of our very best national instincts: the desire to extend a warm hand of friendship and dialogue to faraway lands and peoples. And for anyone who is proud of their heritage or faith, Danny's last words, "I am Jewish," showed that it is possible to find dignity in one's identity even in the darkest of moments. Traces of these ideas are certainly evident in A Mighty Heart, and I hope viewers will leave the theater inspired by them.

At the same time, I am worried that A Mighty Heart falls into a trap Bertrand Russell would have recognized: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far. You can see traces of this logic in the film's comparison of Danny's abduction with Guantanamo -- it opens with pictures from the prison -- and its comparison of Al Qaeda militants with CIA agents. You can also see it in the comments of the movie's director, Michael Winterbottom, who wrote on The Washington Post's website that A Mighty Heart and his previous film The Road to Guantanamo "are very similar. Both are stories about people who are victims of increasing violence on both sides. There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."

There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts.

Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detainment of suspects in Guantanamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their e-mails and the murder video. Obviously Winterbottom did not mean to echo their sentiments, and certainly not to justify their demands or actions. Still, I am concerned that aspects of his movie will play into the hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity.

Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart, a panelist representing the Council on American-Islamic Relations reportedly said, "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film." The message that angry youngsters are hearing is unfortunate: All forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out. This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddiqui Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his videotape on Al Jazeera. "Your democratically elected government," he told his British countrymen, "continues to perpetrate atrocities against my people ... [W]e will not stop."

Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts -- no ifs, ands, or buts. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31, 2002.

There was a time when drawing moral symmetries between two sides of every conflict was a mark of original thinking. Today, with Western intellectuals overextending two-sidedness to reckless absurdities, it reflects nothing but lazy conformity. What is needed now is for intellectuals, filmmakers, and the rest of us to resist this dangerous trend and draw legitimate distinctions where such distinctions are warranted.

My son Danny had the courage to examine all sides. He was a genuine listener and a champion of dialogue. Yet he also had principles and red lines. He was tolerant but not mindlessly so. I hope viewers will remember this when they see A Mighty Heart.

This article originally appeared on The New Republic's website.

July 8, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 29

(29) Anonymous, November 14, 2007 10:48 PM

moral relativism

this article is incredibly inspiring. We learn that we can be suprised at which Jew will teach us a lesson that is needed to be learned.....please G-d next time not in this tragic way. We learn that in this day and time, we have intense need to understand what really counts.
the concept of moral relativism is THE ISSUE OF THE TIMES.
There is a Rabbi YY Jacobson who also wrote (or still writes) outstanding concepts about Moral Relativism as well.
Thankyou for this article, we all need to grow in understanding who we are.

(28) Anonymous, July 15, 2007 8:02 PM

it is sad at what happened to daniel, it is also sad that daniel seems not to have carried much of his jewish heritage

(27) rose keller, July 12, 2007 1:00 AM

it is a poignant perspective from his father

(26) Volvi, July 11, 2007 7:03 PM

The crux of the issue

Whilst not directly related to Daniel Pearl z"l. We have to understand what is really going on. First I wish to say I do not hate muslims. There are many many truly good and kind hearted muslims in the world. Its their religion and doctrine that I have issue with. Why was Daniel Pearl murdered? Why was he "struck" on the neck? Because that is what Islam calls for. Theres no political correctness here, just the plain facts and verses. It is by no accident that Salman Rushdie termed his book "The Satanic Verses". What the west may call "extremist" and "fundementalist" within Islam are moronic terms. For all these so called extremists are doing is following the code as stated in their "holy" book. Many muslims are not versed in the Koran or Hadiths and think this is not part of their faith, but they are wrong and ignorant of just what the Koran in fact calls for. It calls for issuing a warning (just as Ahmadinijad recently issued to G.Bush) and if they wont convert to Islam you may destroy and kill them all. It does call for killing any that are not muslims and are not prepared to become one. And the Jew especially is loathed above all.

So lets be honest here its a war that has been going on almost 1400 years. No matter how one tries to twist and turn the facts it amounts to the same thing. An explorer of the middle east a few centuries back said "The best service you can render a muslim is to liberate him from his religion". Its not the muslim that is evil pe say, its his teachings from the Koran. You think I am making this up? Go research it for yourselves.

(25) victoria cooper, July 11, 2007 3:36 PM

I will not see the movie as the last words of Daniel Pearl were omitted and instead a hollywood version replaced the truth.

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