2001 : WHAT NOW?

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Physicist, University of Oxford; Author, The Beginning of Infinity; Recipient, Edge Computation Science Prize
Research in quantum physics

What happens now is that we (by which I mean the West) eradicate state-sponsored terrorism. And we can achieve that only by replacing all political systems that perpetrate or collaborate with terrorism, by systems that respect human rights both domestically and internationally.

This will require, first of all, war. Then, it will require spectacular success at the notoriously difficult task of improving other nations' political systems. But we have done such things before: we did it for Germany and Japan in 1945. We have also failed many times at it. We must succeed this time.

But more: it will require changes in us. In our conception of the political landscape. It will take violations of old taboos and the creation of new understanding and new traditions. Genuinely this time, it will require the creation of a new and better world order. At a moment like this, people like those gathered here — Edge contributors — surely have a great deal to offer.

I haven't read all the contributions. I agreed with much of what I read, disagreed with some. But I found little of what I had hoped for.

Richard Dawkins, as usual, talked sense, and made several true and timely points. He praised America as "the principal inheritor, and today's leading exponent, of European scientific and rational civilisation", and he broke a taboo by pointing out that this is "the highest civilisation ever". He took sides: "I want to stand up as a friend of America" — as do I. But in one important respect, his remarks did not seem to me to reach the heart of the issue. He blames religion, and our convention of "respecting" it. Now, I am no advocate of religion, but religious belief is surely not central to the present disaster. There are plenty of terrorists at large who are not pursuing any religious agenda. There are notorious sponsors of terrorism who are driven by nationalist or socialist ideologies, not religious dogma. And there are plenty of religious zealots who are no danger to anybody (except themselves and their unfortunate wives and children).

That is not to deny that mainstream Islamic culture has exhibited a major moral failure. It seems to struggle even to find the language and the conceptual framework genuinely to oppose the crimes that are committed in its name. Large numbers of peaceful Muslims find themselves in effect condoning mass murder, and painfully few can bring themselves to side with the victims now exercising their right of self defence. Nevertheless it is not the tenets of Islam that have caused the present violence. This is a political evil we are facing, not a religious one. And it is a modern evil, not an ancient one.

Moreover, mainstream Western culture has also exhibited a major moral failure: a refusal to distinguish between right and wrong. The unique glories of our civilisation — self-criticism, tolerance, openness to change and to ideas from other cultures — have in many people's minds decayed, under this moral failure, into self-hatred, appeasement, and moral relativism.

For instance, Freeman Dyson begins his contribution by attributing the First World War to an excess of zeal in fighting terrorism. His "What Now?" is that we must "stop telling the rest of the world how to behave" and instead "learn to live with the world as it is, not as we want it to be". He also describes his youthful sympathies with the Nazi bombers who in 1940 were dropping death on London, the "citadel of oppression" in which he lived. Of the recent suicide attacks he says: "I find it easy to imagine the state of mind of the young men who so resolutely smashed those planes into the buildings. Almost, I could have been one of them myself". It is ironic that he shows so much empathy with the pilots who murdered thousands in the cause of evil, and so little for those who are at this moment risking their lives to destroy a genuine citadel of oppression.

But this is no coincidence. Moral relativism always sees itself as evenhanded, and indeed it begins with a retreat from judgement or taking sides. But in practice it always entails siding with wrong against right. I said that we need to change. Here is something that desperately needs to change. A colleague wrote recently: "Despite the morality of responding in self-defence to a terrorist attack, I am thinking about how to find solutions that do not include tit for tat." Yet nothing that the West has done so far, or has threatened to do, or has proposed to do, has involved any hint of tit for tat. The idea that it does, is another example of the moral relativism that has pervaded far too much of Western thought and policy making, and is an integral part of what caused the attacks. In reality, the impulse for revenge plays no significant role in the political culture of the West. If it did, then the vast, peaceful, humane and diverse civilisation of the West itself would not be possible.

It is not true that the recent attacks on the US were motivated by a state of mind similar to that which is currently motivating the Western response. The Western stance — and even Western mistakes, including appeasement and moral relativism — are driven fundamentally by respect for human beings, human choices and human life. Western values are life-affirming and life-seeking. The murderers worship death. There is no symmetry between life and death.

There is no "cycle of violence" that we have to "break" by making the murderers and their sympathisers feel less angry with us. Their anger is unjustified: To cleanse the Arabian peninsula of non-Muslims is an immoral aim, violating the human rights both of non-Muslim residents and of Muslims who wish to associate with them (and, perhaps more pertinently, to seek their assistance in defending themselves). To cleanse Israel of Jews is an aspiration similar in kind but much more evil both in its racist motivation and in its intention to destroy an entire nation. To replace secular or less-than-fundamentalist governments by religious fundamentalist ones in all Islamic countries is an utterly tyrannical agenda. And there is a fourth unjustified 'grievance' that goes implicitly with those three: they demand the right to punish the West, by mass murder, with impunity, if anyone in the West opposes them in pursuing any of those other 'grievances'.

In contrast, the West's anger, and the West's restrained, careful and humane response in self-defence, are justified. The problem is not to find alternatives to defending ourselves against murderers. The exact opposite is true: this violence will end if and only if we defend ourselves, effectively. And effectiveness will depend in part on our saying truthfully what we are doing, and why our stance is not essentially the same as theirs.

You can perceive our stance and theirs as symmetrical only by expunging morality from your analysis: seeing all political objectives as being legitimate, all rival value systems as matters of taste, treating murderers and their victims with evenhanded sympathy. You have to look at tolerance and its opposite, intolerance, and pretend that they are two versions of the same thing. You have to pretend that the richness and diversity and creativity of our civilisation are playing the same role in our lives as empty repetition, oppression, and pitiless enforcement of a monoculture play in theirs.

People wring their hands and say that there must be "better ways of finding solutions" than warfare. Of course there are. We have already found them. The nations and people of the West use them all the time. They are openness, tolerance, reason, respect for human rights — the fundamental institutions of our civilisation. But no way of finding solutions is so effective that it can work when it isn't being used. And when a violent group defines itself by its comprehensive rejection of all the values on which problem-solving and the peaceful resolution of disputes depend, and embarks instead on a campaign of unlimited murder and destruction, it is morally wrong as well as factually inaccurate to represent this as a case of our needing "better ways of finding solutions". That is why we have to insist, by force if necessary, that everyone else in the world also respect, and enforce, the minimum standards of civilisation and human rights. Western standards.

One last thought. If I am right that there has been a moral failure in the West despite — and in a way, because of — the moral superiority of Western political culture over that of its enemies, then there is also a second irony. One may argue about the precise role of religion in the terrorists' mindset, but Mr Blair and Mr Bush, both of them religious believers who purport to derive their moral stances from their religions, are certainly not part of the problem: on the contrary, they are leading the solution. Mr Bush, speaking to an audience of children, addressed the question that everyone has asked: "Why would somebody hate so badly"? And he replied: "my answer is, there's evil in the world. But we can overcome evil. We're good." This is the simple truth — a truth on which all our futures depend — yet the moment Mr Bush uttered it, all the intellectuals in the Western world winced. Even those who, like myself, agreed with the proposition, winced, vicariously, because we recognised the intensity of the taboo that was being broken.

How many non-believers would have been capable of giving the right answer to that question? President Bush was able to answer it, and to articulate the explanation, and to use it as an essential element of national policy, not especially because he knows it intellectually but because he understands it in his gut. And the process by which it got into his gut was intimately connected with his religion. I must hasten to add that this process also entrenched there a slew of wrong ideas. Nevertheless, civilisation will survive the miscellaneous evils that one finds in a mature, Western religion — such as Bush's opposition to abortion, and the like. But it would not, pace Richard Dawkins, survive the typical non-believer's (pre-September-11) take on the nature of morality. We non-believers have failed too. What comes next is that we must correct that failure, by incorporating into the Western tradition of critical rationalism an objective conception of right and wrong.