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Tuesday, September 11, 2001

There Is No Sanctuary

I'm a little baffled by the heavy use of "warrant" and "justify" in the world's response to this. Those terms are tossed around as if they were a universal metric of Good and Evil. It is apparently a politically correct mandate that anyone expressing their opinions about this event must include the disclaimer "(not that I think anything could justify this act)". It was the same after the Oklahoma incident.

Apparently the universe thought it was justified. Perhaps when we start looking at things from the universe's perspective, we'll be a little better at avoiding such things in the future.

We pretend that everybody's context is the same as ours, as if they were all right here with us, reading the news off the internet. We imply McVeigh should appreciate that his friends were killed in an act of law enforcement, that the Iraqis should see that their children are dying as a necessary cost of a grander purpose, and so on. We fail to separate our context from theirs. And it is within this metric that we bandy about what is "justified" and what is not, as if justification were measured on an impartial scale, based on some sort of global optimality measure or something.

But it's not.

Justification is ultimately a subjective matter. And while it is the role of ethics to bring these subjective contexts as much into harmony as possible, the fact remains, in the end, that it's still just a bunch of subjective contexts.

And the most important aspect of this, which people seem stubbornly opposed to acknowledging, is that there is an asymmetry of infinite proportions at play here--with those things closer to the center of the valuer's context being worth exponentially more than those things far off on the horizon. When you threaten but one person's life, you are threatening their entire universe and when you kill their family, you may well have destroyed their entire world. The same impunity with which you brush off the deaths of thousands of faceless beings in some other place is the impunity with which each of those deaths is worth a thousand here.

And there's nothing to be done about that. It's the way of the world. I just wish people would stop pretending it isn't. I think they'd be surprised a lot less often. Saying "nothing could possibly justify this act" is, well, just arrogant and naive.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com