The death of relativism
The film A Mighty Heart goes too far in likening my son's murderers to the Guantánamo regime
Judea PearlWednesday September 19, 2007
I used to believe that the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant, and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the former ruled the earth, I reasoned, the world might know some measure of peace. But there was a problem with my theory, and it was never clearer than in a conversation I had with a Pakistani friend who told me that he loathed people like George Bush who insisted on dividing the world into "us" and "them". My friend did not realise that he was in fact falling straight into the camp of people he loathed.
This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell. The stronger you insist on the necessity of tolerance, the more intolerant you become toward those who disagree. The moral lesson is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance; ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance.
Which brings me to my son, Daniel Pearl. Thanks to the release of A Mighty Heart, the Angelina Jolie movie which premieres in the UK this week, Danny's legacy is once again receiving attention. Of course, no movie could ever capture exactly that magical combination of humour and integrity, gentleness and resilience, that made Danny admired by so many. Still, traces of these qualities are certainly evident in A Mighty Heart, and viewers will leave the cinema inspired by them.
At the same time, I am worried that the film falls into a trap Russell would have recognised: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far. You can see traces of this logic in the film's comparison of Danny's abduction with Guantánamo (it opens with pictures from the prison) and of al-Qaida militants with CIA agents. You can also see it in the comments of the movie's director, Michael Winterbottom, who wrote in the Washington Post that A Mighty Heart and his previous film, The Road to Guantanamo, were very similar: "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."
Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detention of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their emails and the murder video. Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart in Los Angeles, a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said: "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film."
Yet the message that angry youngsters are hearing from such blanket generalisation is predictable: all forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out. This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddique Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his video. "Your democratically elected government," he told his fellow Britons, "continues to perpetrate atrocities against my people ... [We] will not stop."
Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts. Moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi, on January 31 2002.
My son had the courage to examine all sides. He was a genuine listener and a champion of dialogue. Yet he also had principles and red lines. He was tolerant but not mindlessly so. I hope viewers of A Mighty Heart will remember this.
· Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and co-editor of I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl; a version of this article has appeared in The New Republic.