Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Moral Event Horizon

As per TV Tropes, the Moral Event Horizon is the point in a story where a character goes from possibly redeemable to irrevocably evil--it's the point at which some action means there's no going back to a sympathetic character--no matter how "misunderstood" or horrible-their-back-story or whatever. In real life, just as in academics, people can argue when that line has been crossed.

Don't Be Evil
Yesterday the Taliban attacked and killed over 100 people in a Pakistani school--most of them, apparently, children. ISIS has released a pamphlet that justifies (and explains the rules around) taking non-Islamic women as slaves. Of course Boko Haram has, of course, split the difference by taking school girls for slaves (although they were probably Muslim).

There are pragmatic reasons for this behavior: in the under-sexed Islamic culture with far too many young men without prospects, the idea of getting a woman as bounty is a recruiting tactic (so is less permanent jihad-justified sex). The Pakistani school attack may have been done to shore up internal conflicts and prove the Taliban is still relevant. Brutality as a tactic is useful for breaking the enemy's morale and terrifying them into submission (as has happened repeatedly with ISIS's cross-desert push). Finally, certain atrocities, like the journalist beheadings, are designed to draw ransom dollars and/or maneuver the US into a ground war where the battle-space assets the terrorists have (suicide bombers) may be used more effectively than against a lazy-paced drone-war (as well as legitimizing the caliphate).

That said, it really does appear that radical Islam, as a whole, has taken Google's mission statement and made it one word shorter.

The Torture Documents
Senate Democrats, for what are probably political reasons, have released an analysis of the CIA's torture program (called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Do they read Orwell at the CIA? Hell yes, they read Orwell). It details a variety of things such as "rectal feeding" (which is, at least, a medically accurate description of the technique until you get to the word feeding). While various parties have defended the actions described (it was early days after 9/11! We did get valuable intel! It was medically necessary!!) the facts in question are not disputed: We actually did these things. It was sanctioned by the government.

There will be no judicial reprisals.

What's Your Mission Statement?
The Omnivore is not making the case that the acts depicted in the torture document equate to the magnitude of the atrocities that radical Islam (ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram) are perpetrating. They don't--and if you think they do, by some moral objective moral index, The Omnivore can't help you there. That's not what's interesting about these two observations.

What's interesting to The Omnivore is that if "character is what you do when you think nobody's watching," then whatever it's called when it's printed under your letterhead is a very strong statement about not just your values--but your public attestation of your values. The CIA torture program was done in the dark (and, The Omnivore believes, the partisan divide in defense of it hews to the partisan divide in general: if it had been an Obama administration performing the torture, The Omnivore suspects that many of the Republicans who are okay with it today would decry it*).

However, whether or not that is the case, the idea that torture is a "core value" of America doesn't pass the sniff test and there's just no denying that torture is a "core value" of radical Islam (same with beheading, targeting children, slavery, etc.) The Omnivore isn't sure there has ever been such a media-visible divide in existence.

Certainly, just prior to the Civil War, there was a lot of debate about slavery--but the gestalt we see today is, The Omnivore believes, leagues beyond even that. To be sure, things like the British Empire's exercise of colonial muscle contained atrocities that the 'folks at home' were probably okay with--so long as they were happening to browner, less English-speaking, and less protestant people--but The Omnivore isn't sure there was a much-better peer example around at the time.

What the colonial forces of the BE were doing was, The Omnivore thinks, kind of par for the course at the time. Today, ISIS has rolled their Standard Operating Procedure right back to the middle ages--but with video cameras and the Internet.

This juxtaposition might be new.

The fact that it is a 'successful' strategy (ISIS, with its conduct fully acknowledged and public is able to, for example, recruit westerners) is, to The Omnivore, amazing: possibly there has never been as easy a way to cross the Moral Event Horizon just by crossing a boarder (with blogs and tumblrs to help you out). Even the Nazi death-camps were done more or less done "in the dark."

We have a stark example of two different competing morality models that are not just varied--but are literally almost diametrically opposed. There is a generally agreed upon world-wide morality ratified by the United Nations and includes numerous member nations both in the east and west. There is the black-flag and banner of radical Islam that wears its monstrous morality publicly on its sleeve.

Like a black hole that morality attracts those who enter its orbit--those who are susceptible to radicalization--who are influenced by its message of victimization justifying anything--and using damaged religious ideology to enable its adherent's disease--radical Islam is vacuuming up people who are willing to accept its worldview as legitimate.

Horrible things and people have always existed--and they have sometimes (perhaps often) reached positions of power over others--but today we have the naked singularity out in the open. We can look down from satellites and see them out there: standards bearers of a level of darkness even Stalinist Russia sought to hide from the world at large, spin away, or obfuscate under layers of Utopian objectives.

Radical Islam may not represent the existential threat the Nazi regime did but it exceeds it in embrace of an abhorrent and public ideology.

The Black Hole is here. It's drawing people in--and every time it gets one, it gets a little stronger.

* At least The Omnivore hopes so. And while we're here, on the left there is a tendency to try to draw various equivalences between various evil forces and the American government (especially what is going on in Guantanamo and CIA black sites).

The things going on there are atrocities--and need to be stopped (and, ideally, punished)--but they are NOT America's mission statement and arguing that they are is an argument that only benefits the terrorists and their apologists.


  1. Though I agree that there's no equivalency to be drawn between the actions of the U.S. government (at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere) and those of the Islamic State, there is nevertheless a cause-and-effect relationship there. Yes, ISIS apparently believes, as you say, that their ideology and sense of victimization justifies anything at all; to a lesser degree, it appears that our government made a similar Faustian bargain in the name of its "war on terror".

    I understand that people were angry, scared, and vengeful in the aftermath of 9/11, but it seemed clear that the Government exploited the hell out of those emotions to ram through decisions which "cooler heads" and "the better angels of our nature" would never have permitted. I'm sure that the Bush administration as good as ordered the CIA to "take the gloves off" and do whatever was necessary to get "results" - narrowly defined as "scoring political points", but "results" all the same - but the Agency seems to have set aside the wisdom of Nietzsche: "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster".

    Those actions have had terrible collateral damage, and their lasting effect has been even greater radicalization among disaffected Muslims. So much for "winning hearts and minds", I guess.

    Again, I'm emphatically not drawing any equivalencies here, just noting that there's a whole lot of middle ground between retarded American exceptionalism / jingoistic nonsense ("We're nothing like them", "They hate us for our freedom", etc) and the stereotypical liberal hand-wringing to which you refer ("We used to have the moral high ground, but now we're no better than they are").

    I say there's still time to choose our path as a nation: we're not at that moral event horizon quite yet. Are we going to pull our heads out of the sand (metaphorically) and actually learn something from 9/11, or will that tragedy end up being this generation's Reichstag fire?

    I don't have much hope for the former: there doesn't seem to be any honorable way to beat these guys any more, if indeed there ever was. An apropos saying from the American South: "Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it."

    -- Ω

    1. I'm not sure hearts and minds were ever really on the table. Certainly America's actions have taken point as a recruiting tool--but we see young women essentially selling themselves into slavery--going over there, and even staying (with some degree of freedom).

      The analysis says they want to be part of something larger and have romanticized the movement. There is something appealing about global jihad beyond the justification / excuse of victimization (I think victimization is a huge driver--but I think it's also clear there's an appeal beyond that).

      To be sure, The American Dream has an appeal too--and a far stronger one. Every step we take to become more like Global Jihad weakens us and strengthens them. Some days it really does look like a battle of good vs. evil.

      -The Omnivore

  2. I think that a lot of that "appeal beyond [victimization]" has to do with the clarity and simplicity occasioned by moral absolutism. A lot of people are simply overwhelmed by complexity and latching on to seemingly simple answers/solutions. "Why," goes the thought process, "wouldn't the world be better if we just killed everybody we didn't like?"

    Just a few more moments' thought should be enough to scrap ideas like that, but that pause sometimes fails to be taken. Call it a cognitive failure, maybe.

    As for that putative battle of good vs. evil - where would you say it's taking place? Seems to me it's within all of us, all the time; usually in increments too small to notice except in hindsight.

    The fight proceeds between ticks of a rusting clock, now. Mind that oilcan!

    -- Ω

  3. The atrocities committed by the CIA may not be America's mission statement, but I think they probably are the CIA's mission statement. Or at least a big part of it.

    Boko Haram, the Taliban, and ISIS are all profoundly evil organizations. They're all far worse than the American government in general. But are they worse than the CIA?

    Based on what I've seen, I'd say they probably are. But given how much stuff the CIA does in the dark, I'm not very confident in that probably. If in a year we hear a report telling us that CIA agents killed 100 kids in a foreign school for some nebulous reason, I won't be shocked.

    With that in mind, I don't find it surprising that ISIS and company still have supporters. There are people in America who cheer when they hear about innocent people being tortured by the CIA. Why wouldn't there be people in Iraq who cheer when they hear about innocent people being beheaded by ISIS?

    Also, I think you're understating how open the Nazis were about their plans.