It may not surpise our regular reader to learn that I’m not a big fan of Bill O’Reilly. So when I was reading a transcript of his interview with the son of a 9/11 victim you can imagine where my sympathies were. Let’s put that aside for now, however, and look at an interesting use of language in the conversation by the interviewee, Jeremy Glick, specifically
“you said it was a moral equivalency, and it’s actually a material equivalency.”
The item under discussion was whether the US attacks on Vietnam and other countries could be equated with the terrorist attacks on the US.
The actions of the US in these earlier wars were, at least some of the time, objectionable. The word objectionable can carry a lot of meaning in this context. You may feel that while they were not what one would wish, they were nonetheless understandable and justified given the circumstances. On the other hand, you may think they were examples of state-executed terrorism. Obviously that latter view would give them an equivalence with the terrorist attacks on the US. Such a debate, I believe, arises because we’re thinking about it as a moral equivalence. If you feel that America’s heart was pure then its actions can be put down to poor execution, or even regrettable miscomprehension of a situation. If you find America to be The Great Satan then the moral equivalance is presumably clear. I imagine most people, myself included, sit somewhere along that continuum.
What I found interesting in Mr Glick’s language was the idea of material equivalance. Was the US morally justified in making Laos the most bombed nation on earth? Was my namesake morally justified in levelling Dresden? Is either side in the Isreali-Palestinian standoff morally justified in its actions? I have little but ill-formed opinions to offer. But when it comes to material equivalance, the case is much easier to make. Ask Kim Phuc about material equivalence. Or the 28,000 Boer women and children who died at the start of the 20th Century. Or any of the millions of Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Rwandans, Ethiopians, Native Americans, hell, just pick a nationality, who died from some internal or external force that was morally equivalent to either beneficence or terrorism to someone.
Materially, they’re still dead.