that I have just "done in" my grandma. Unfortunately
for my plans, the police arrive before I can make my get away.
don't you see," I tell them, "my act was not criminal
at all: Grandma was ill and would have died in a few years anyway.
Furthermore, she was very rich, and I am her sole heir. And,
I plan to use my inheritance to open an AIDS clinic in Africa,
alleviating a lot of suffering."
police, of course, will arrest me despite my explanation. I
am guilty of a category error: I have mistaken the reasons
I acted as I did for a justification of my action.
the other hand, when my case comes to trial, the district attorney
will doubtlessly be very interested in my story, and will present
it to the jury as the motive for my crime. Few people would
mistake his description of my motive for an attempt at exonerating
me. He is not attempting to convince the jury that what I did
was justified, but to present a narrative that explains why
I did it, making the case against me more persuasive.
mode of historical discourse is that of just such explanations.
The historian qua historian is not concerned with the
morality of a course of action. He is concerned with explaining
why that course of action, and not some other, actually was
chosen. The result of his efforts is a coherent narrative that
describes how historical events arose from various actors' understanding
of their circumstances.
justification does not concern itself with such explanations,
but, instead, with whether or not some action conformed to a
tradition of moral practice. A genuine moral justification must
attempt to show that the person defended really was acting in
accordance with the relevant moral rules. Ethically speaking,
I can defend myself against a charge of murder only by showing
that what I did was not, in fact, a violation of the
rule forbidding murder -- for instance, because Grandma was
coming at me with a butcher knife. In that case, I am acquitted
of murder not because I had a good reason to commit a
murder, but because what I did was a killing in self-defense
and therefore was not a murder.
it is easy to lose track of these distinctions in more complex
circumstances, especially those playing out within a broad historical
context, involving many governments and numerous individuals,
and encompassing a multitude of lesser events. So it is not
surprising to find a great deal of confusion about these categories
in the commentary following the terrorist attacks of September
11th. But confusion is not likely to be helpful in
a crisis, so it's important to dispel the foggy thought, to
whatever extent possible. I'll present and analyze some instances
of this error, as it is valuable to be able to spot this confusion
when it arises.
begin, we can contemplate Frontpagemag.com chastizing Justin
Raimondo and Harry Browne: "Raimondo and Browne have attempted
to mitigate terrorists’ accountability for massacring thousands
of Americans [by blaming American foreign policy for the attacks]."
if you read the articles by Browne and Raimondo, you'll find that
they consist of historical analysis of how US policies were
precursors to the attacks, along with a few lines of "I
told you so," contending that an event like this should
have been foreseen. Such analysis may be wrong, but it can only
be countered by other historical narratives, specifically, by
those that make better sense of the events in question. The
evocation of "autonomous choice" as a refutation of Browne and
Raimondo is a symptom of confused thinking. Historical explanation
presupposes the category of autonomous choice, and proceeds
to explain why one choice was made rather than another.
example, an historical narrative tracing the roots of World
War II back to Versailles is not claiming that Hitler was "caused"
to act as he did. History does not deal with cause and effect,
categories of the physical sciences, but with understood situations
and conscious responses to them. And to construct a coherent
historical narrative that explains, for instance, Hitler's
hatred of Jews, in no sense excuses his actions toward
let's move on to our next case in point. Jamie Glazov wrote
for FrontPage entitled, "It Doesn’t Matter 'What
Made These People So Angry.' What Matters is to Eliminate Them."
wonders if we should ask why the terrorists were angry "…for
the sake of minimizing their responsibility so that blame can
be attributed to the United States?" He answers his own
question: "No, I don’t think so."
an understanding of what made the terrorists angry is not an
excuse for what they have done, or an attempt to blame someone
else for their actions. (In Glazov's defense, it must be said
that a few of the people pleading for understanding do
regard historical circumstances as an excuse for the attacks:
see John O'Sullivan's recent article in NRO
for some examples.) Somewhat oddly, immediately after concluding
that we don't have to contemplate what made these people angry,
Glazov launches into an explanation of what made them angry.
Perhaps he means that no explanations other than his
should be considered.
two other articles
evaluating the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Glazov
attempts to justify the American actions through an account
of the historical circumstances that led to the decision to
drop the bombs. Because Glazov has confused historical explanation
with moral justification, he rejects any historical approach
toward actions of which he does not approve, but employs
just such an approach in attempting to justify actions of which
he does approve.
and again in FrontPage, Chris Weinkopf criticizes
"the return of moral equivalence":
this logic, targeting innocent civilians is an offense roughly
on par with defending the Middle East’s lone democracy, maintaining
bases in a Muslim country with that government’s approval, liberating
one Arab nation from the occupation of another, or using sanctions
to thwart a tyrant’s unchecked nuclear-weapons program."
has shifted realms of discourse, from moral to historical, in
mid-sentence: the evil of the terrorists is shown by the methods
through which they seek their ends (and here he is quite correct),
but the goodness of America is illustrated, with the sole exception
of the Saudi bases, by the ends it seeks: exactly the
tactic he correctly forbids his opponents. (Consider that a
"justification" such as "defending the Middle
East’s lone democracy" can be used to excuse anything
that achieves that end, including pre-emptive nuclear strikes
on all countries within some radius of that "lone democracy."
Asserting a worthy end simply does not justify every action
that might help achieve that end.)
see this confusion again in a Washington Post article
by Charles Krauthamer, where he closes by saying: "This
is no time for obfuscation. Or for agonized relativism. Or,
obscenely, for blaming America first… This is a time for clarity.
At a time like this, those who search for root causes, for extenuations,
are, to borrow from Newsweek's Lance Morrow, 'too philosophical
for decent company.'"
a clear moral condemnation of the terrorist acts is not at all
incompatible with a clear historical understanding of the circumstances
that led to those acts. Such historical comprehension does not
involve blame, moral relativism, or "root causes."
(Again, in Krauthamer 's defense, it must be said that some
of the people he's arguing against do confuse an historical
explanation with a physical cause.) An historical explanation
does not equate or render relative various moral choices, because
it is not making any sort of moral pronouncements at all. It
is a search for clarity, not obfuscation, although the clarity
it provides is historical and not moral.
attack every effort at historical understanding as moral equivocation
is not mere intellectual confusion. If we fail to comprehend
our historical situation, we condemn ourselves to fighting with
our eyes closed. As Edward Said says,
"Intellectually, morally, politically such an
attitude is disastrous since the equation between understanding
and condoning is profoundly wrong…"