I didn’t blog about the Madrid bombings the day they happened because I couldn’t think of much to say beyond the fact that they were horrifying. Also, a personal crisis the same day took my mind off important matters and onto my own life.
I’ve been mulling over the tragedy since then, and especially the response to it. I think the response – shock, horror, condemnation, solidarity – has been entirely appropriate. And I don’t want what I’m going to say to be interpreted as implying otherwise. I also don’t want to imply that we should fail to give the victims of the bombing their due attention, or focus our attention elsewhere. What I want to suggest is that we broaden our attention to include other kinds of political violence, not that we look away from the terror in Madrid in some other direction.
That said, let me get to the point: What makes me uncomfortable about the coverage of the bombings is not the implication that terrorism is especially evil. It’s the implication that terrorism is somehow uniquely evil, that it demands our condemnation in ways that no other kind of political violence could.
If you’re a bad guy looking to be evil, the deliberate targeting of civilian victims for political ends not coordinated (or only loosely coordinated) with a state is a winning strategy. But there are other ways. You might also act on behalf of a state’s official machinery to target civilian victims for political ends. And all other things being equal, this will be no less evil, no less reprehensible.
Again, the point is not to distract attention away from victims of terrorism, or to minimize their suffering. The point is that we might consider broadening our response to evil, by including more things on our list of things which set someone or some state beyond the pale.
Let me offer you a comparison. The roots of the conflict in Chechnya are tangled and complex, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But Vladmir Putin bears ultimate responsibility for what the Russian military has done in Chechnya. Credible reports of mass graves, systematic rape, illegal detentions, murder, the energetic shelling of civilian areas, mass transfers of people, and so on, are now years old. Thousands of innocents have perished at the hands of the Russian military in circumstances they have been unable to account for.
When nothing is done about this, when it continues in spite of the reports, it is obvious that responsibility rests with people who rely on such techniques to achieve their political ends. Putin is a murderer, a war criminal. He has done something on par with the bombings in Madrid. He has used calculated violence against civilians in order to achieve political ends. And he has done so without scruple or restraint.
Chechnya’s plight is not exactly hidden – it does make the front pages from time to time. But for the most part the mass murders and other abuses have occurred without attracting much attention. And even when they do attract attention, they gather precious little condemnation. We treat Putin as though he is a legitimate statesman – as though he is not a very plaubile candidate for the Hague. His kind of violence is normal, safe – and if it isn’t sanctioned, it apparently doesn’t rise to the level required to get him shunned from civilized society.
And so, once again, it is not the universal condemnation of the Madrid bombings that is disturbing. It is the way these condemnations so often function in political discourse – whether we realize it or not – to throw the emphasis almost entirely on one kind of political violence, and firmly away from others, which seems to me as intrinsically wrong as terrorism. None of this is necessary or inevitable. We can mourn and condemn victims of terrorism without slipping into this habit. But unless I’m mistaken, we do, in ways that are more or less subtle.
Now for three qualifications, so I don’t get beaten up for writing this:
First, you might argue that Putin had better ends than either the ETA or AQ (whoever was responsible for the Madrid bombings). I don’t know enough about the ETA to judge that, but I do think that AQ’s dreams of world Islamic hegemony are basically worse than almost anything I can imagine. But two points are worth making here: The first is that we usually don’t think the ends justify the means when it comes to the deliberate slaughter of civilians to achieve political aims. And the second, of course, is that Putin’s ends are not entirely creditable.
Second, I’ve claimed that the reaction to the Madrid bombing reveals certain attitudes about terrorism which don’t match our attitudes about other kinds of political violence. But I certainly don’t want to argue that our reactions to violence always have to exactly fit a careful moral calculus, so that before people express shock and horror they have to go through some rigamarole about ensuring that their response is commensurate with any other tragedy. We pay more attention to some places than others for lots of contingent or accidental reasons, and the tendency is so human I’m not sure there’s anything objectionable about it, at least within limits. What I’m pointing to, though, is a disparity in response that is really quite extreme and that is therefore worth thinking about a bit.
Finally, even if we decide that terrorism is morally on par with some varieties of state violence (other things being equal), we certainly are justified in finding terrorism more alarming or frightening. And that’s because state violence doesn’t threaten most of the people whose blogs I’m reading, whereas terrrorism really is something that might get us. Even people who are threatened by state violence can sometimes bargain with states, make compromises, find ways to smooth over the unpredictability. But terrorism can strike anywhere: today in Madrid, tomorrow in mid-town Manhattan as my wife commutes to work.
And so there is one sense in which it is perfectly fair for people to find terrorism more awful. But it’s not a moral difference, and we ought to think about that.