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Moral relativism and A Mighty Heart, Judea Pearl, The New Republic Online, July 3, 2007


Moral relativism and A Mighty Heart
Back to Focus
by Judea Pearl

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.

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 inclusively. 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."

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.


Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization committed to interfaith dialogue, and co-editor of I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.