Earlier in this blog, I argued against universalism and absolutism. Here I try to connect that with the current crisis surrounding IS (ISIS, ISIL).
Should terror be fought with universal values, or are those precisely the source of it? Moral universalism leads to nationalism, intolerance, discrimination, missionary zeal, conquest and suppression. It is totalitarian in its absolutist claim to apply always and to everyone. The human being cannot achieve the absolute, and reaching beyond human limitations makes the world inhumane. This applies as much to the presumed universal blessings of Western democracy, capitalism and market, as it does to those of communism, Christian faith and Islam.
But, one may object, terror surely is an absolute evil? Does that not demand an absolute counterweight? What terror is, is often the judgement of a dominant power concerning its rebels. The rebels are inspired by their own absolutisms of faith or ideology.
What is terror? If it is defined as violence against innocent bystanders, then the interventions in Vietnam, Iraq en Afghanistan were terrorist, as earlier colonial interventions by the Netherlands in Indonesia, France in Algeria, Belgium in Congo, Great Britain in India, etc.
If terror is defined as a deliberate targeting of the population, then the use of nerve gas by Italy in Eritrea in the 1930s, the bombardment of Dresden in WWII, and the atom bombs on Japan were terrorist.
The boundary between these two definitions of terror is not sharp. It depends on how much collateral damage one accepts.
In what regard, then, if any, is the terror perpetrated by IS (or ISIS, or ISIL) worse than bombardment with much collateral damage?
Is it perhaps the manner of violence? Is the physical, personal closeness of the knife and sword of IS worse than the distant, impersonal slaughter by bombs? Or is it an affront to our sensibility of civilisation? In its past, the West overcame its own bloodshed by the sword, progressing to bombs, and it is an affront to history, the cultural achievement of the Enlightenment, to be thrown back into barbarism.
Not only outcomes count, in suffering, blood and death, but also motives. Terror seems more acceptable when it aims to curtail aggression, or terror (as now regarding IS), or to enforce peace (as formerly in Kosovo). Or when it arises from compassion with victims, as now concerning IS. However, IS will claim that it also acts from compassion and protection against injustice, suppression and violence regarding Sunnites.
I propose that the horror is deepest when terror is based on some absolute, in religion or ideology, transcending humanity, devoid of all reasonableness, limit and moderation. Devoid of human virtue. That arose before, in the holocaust, the Pol Pot regime and Rwanda, and now in IS.
But wait. The Enlightenment produced its own absolute, that of reason, replacing the absolute of God. That yielded the rational choice of economics, which yielded markets, resulting in an absolutist market ideology. Now, markets do not seek terror, violence against the population. Nevertheless, it does produce violence. Is it a sufficient excuse that this effect is not intended? In philosophy this is an issue of debate. The claim that violence was not intended may be a sop, turning a blind eye, masking intention.
My conclusion is this. While Enlightenment thought and market capitalism are absolutist, in contrast to IS the terror of bombarding IS is based on debate, in press and parliament, in a weighing of pros and cons, with an ear for opposition. It is a case of the debatable ethics that I plead for in this blog.
The tragedy of bombing IS is that without doubt it will call forth the next wave of extremism and terrorism, but a point was reached where nevertheless action had to be taken.
The worst tragedy is that the very absolutism of the worst terror also forms its attraction. Especially to some young people, attracted by the transcendence of the absolute, rising above the mortal self, the lure of the pure, and the unconditional, in a flight from the nihilism and shallow materialism of Western society, and from the compromise and hypocrisy of adulthood. They flee from the absolute of markets, back to the absolute of God, dropping democracy and destroying freedom and reasonableness.