Another Perspective

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Who knew that terrorists can have "serious moral goals"?

By 10.26.03

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has generously taken time out from his busy schedule coping with the crisis provoked in the Church of England by the appointment of a homosexual bishop in New Hampshire to instruct us barbarous and ignorant Americans that terrorists can have "serious moral goals." Who knew? Speaking to the Royal Institute for International Affairs, according to the Daily Telegraph of London, His Eminence (or is it His Grace?) said that, "while terrorism must always be condemned, it was wrong to assume its perpetrators were devoid of political rationality. 'It is possible to use unspeakably wicked means to pursue an aim that is shared by those who would not dream of acting in the same way, an aim that is intelligible or desirable.'"

So let me see if I've got this straight, Archbish: the whole terrorism thing is all to be understood in terms of, like, means and ends? And it may occasionally be the case that the ends don't, like, justify the means? And just because even pacific Anglicans like yourself may occasionally make so bold as to object when terrorists blow up non-combatant women and children, it does not by any means follow (does it?) that the reasons why they have chosen to blow up non-combatant women and children are bad reasons? Hm, yes. I see. By Jove, I think I've got it. What a thing learning is!

It was a Christian deed to relieve us of our burden of ignorance, the more so because, as Dr. Williams also said, "in ignoring this, in its criticism of al-Qa'eda, America 'loses the power of self-criticism and becomes trapped in a self-referential morality.'" All very true, no doubt, though I don't think I myself am quite up to following him through these dense intellectual thickets. Say, just for the sake of argument, that America's "criticism" of al Qaeda were directed at the means (blowing people up, remember?) rather than the ends (er, what were they again?). Say, further, that that criticism took the form of military action to reduce al Qaeda's capacity for blowing people up. By what logic does he find that America thereby "loses the power of self-criticism"?

Maybe he only means that, in criticizing al Qaeda by making war on it, America shows no evidence of such self-criticism -- though it would be very odd if it did. But granted that self-criticism is a very good thing in general, is it also a good thing for al Qaeda? Is it also a good thing for Lambeth Palace? Does he see any evidence of it in either of those places? Could it be that the terrorists and even the Archbishop himself are also "trapped in a self-referential morality"? How would they know if they were -- any more than America knew before he so kindly set us straight? Whew! It's all too many for me. At least I'm capable of that much self-criticism.

And my bewilderment grows with Dr. Williams's statement that, again according to the Telegraph, the more general purpose of his speech was "to challenge violence 'as the tool of private interest or private redress'" -- by which he meant "that no government should act as its own judge on whether to launch military action against a rogue state." But wait! Isn't "government" the opposite of "private"? Oh, I see. He explains himself. "If a state or administration acts without due and visible attention to agreed international process, it acts in a way analogous to a private person. It purports to be judge of its own interest."

Analogous, eh? More big words, Mr. Archbishop! So if the violently-acting state or administration is "analogous to a private person" what is the terrorist group attempting to kill him analogous to? Or does the burden of analogousness, and with it the presumed denial of the right to self-defense -- or even "to be judge of its own interest" -- fall on the state or administration alone and not on the terrorist group with its "intelligible or desirable" motives for blowing people up? Do they, the terrorists, then act with due and visible attention to agreed international process? Do they not judge of their own interest? And if violence confers privacy, does that mean that everything public must be non-violent? How then can any war ever be fought in the public interest?

There must be something that they teach in archbishop's school that enables a man to understand such reasoning -- or else the dwindling but increasingly gay and female flock of Anglican worshipers is now so bright and frightfully educated that Dr. Williams has grown unused to dumbing down the homilies for the rest of us. Suggestions as to what he could possibly have meant by everything said after saying that terrorists can have "serious moral goals" will be gratefully accepted.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.