We've recently been having an interesting debate about morality in these pixellated pages. Much of it has focused on Osama bin Laden and his moral status. Some argue that he was doing the right thing as he saw it, or that what he did was no worse than what other historical figures have done, or that in his shoes, anyone might have done the same, and so we can't possibly know or judge.
But I think maybe we are making things a little too complicated. As I see it, it's really not that hard.
Most people don't go out of their way to hurt and kill others. In fact, they probably go out of their way to help others, at least some of the time.
Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, spent most of his adult life trying to come up with new and more creative ways to kill people. No doubt he had his reasons. People always have reasons. Jack the Ripper must have had reasons, too.
But whatever bin Laden's reasons, he chose the dark side. He could have worked for a peaceful solution, as Gandhi did. He had millions of dollars, an influential family, and a passionate following. Imagine the good he could have done if he had pursued the cause of peace and goodwill. Instead he chose the path of mass murder.
Getting caught up in debates about Hiroshima or Dresden sort of misses the point, though it is interesting. Once war starts, there will be atrocities. That's inevitable. War is hell, and countless good people die on and off the battlefield. This has always been true. Recognizing this fact, people of goodwill go out of their way to avoid war. They negotiate with anyone, even with Hitler, trying to find a compromise, any compromise. They ask for cooler heads to prevail. They pray for peace.
But Osama bin Laden didn't do that. Quite the opposite: he wanted to start a war, and he wanted to commit atrocities. He relished the idea of dragging the whole world into armed conflict. He didn't pray for peace and understanding; he prayed for death and destruction. He made mass murder the focus of his life.
Did he make the world a better place? Certainly not for the people around the world whom he killed and maimed, or for the soldiers of many nations who ended up fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Did he at least make life better for his own people? Not at all. The Muslim world did not benefit from Al Qaeda's attacks. Many Muslims were among the victims, and others have seen an increase in prejudice and hostility against them.
Bin Laden did nothing positive with his wealth. He used it to purchase weapons and to train killers. He did nothing positive with his fame. He used it to recruit confused young men as suicide bombers. He did nothing positive with his influence. He only stoked the fires of resentment and rage in both hemispheres, and made the world a sadder and more divided place.
Only a bad man would kill a lot of innocent people with no hope of accomplishing anything except the commencement of a wider war and still more killing. Yes, other world figures have been responsible for civilian deaths. But here's the distinction. It's one thing to kill people in wartime in the hope of ending the war and establishing peace. It's another thing to kill people in peacetime for the sake of provoking a war, with the ultimate goal of killing as many more people as possible.
The Iranian president publicly fantasizes about the return of the Twelfth Imam, which will supposedly trigger a global war and the deaths of all infidels -- "infidels" meaning, evidently, everyone who doesn't belong to Ahmadenijad's own narrow sect. There's no way to rationalize this as goodness, even as perverted goodness, goodness gone astray. It's plain malice, pure and simple. It's the fever dream of an angry bigot praying for the death of anyone who dares to think differently from him.
Osama bin Laden was no different. He wanted mass murder. He devoted his life to it. This was a fatal error -- fatal not only to his many victims, but to his own soul. He chose the wrong path.
Does this mean he is beyond redemption? No, I don't think so. But it does mean he will need to face the full consequences of his error, and those consequences are very grave. He will have to realize that he embraced the darkness instead of the light.
The world is facing a conflict between fundamentally different mindsets. It is a conflict that only one side can win. We close our eyes to this hard fact at our own peril. In the West we are raising moral equivalence to an art form. Our adversaries recognize no such nuances. As Yeats foresaw,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And in a world like that, the center does not hold.