"However much we try to distinguish between morally good and morally evil ways of killing, our attempts are beset with contradictions, and these contradictions remain a fragile part of our modern subjectivity."
-- Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing
You can detect it when a politician or journalist uses a word like "barbaric" to describe the actions of any suicide bomber before, on, or after 9/11: the clear assumption that "Islamic Terrorism" represents an uncontainable hostility toward modernity. The extremists, on this view, are primitive; we are civilized. They are irrational; we are people of reason and forethought. This is the "clash of civilizations" narrative that has held sway in the west for generations, but with a special power in the last decade.
Yet as anthropologist Talal Asad points out, the histories of Europe and Islam are not so neatly separated and thus the clash of civilizations rhetoric ignores a rich legacy of mutual borrowings and continuous interactions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. More than that, though, the (very selective) heritage that shapes a people (that odd, unknown hybrid called Judeo-Christianity, for instance) often bears no relation to the hard facts on the ground -- to the way people self-identify, to what they do, how they negotiate the world, and so on.
The concept of jihad is a case in point. Asad notes that the term is not central to Islam, but that western histories of the religion have made it integral to an Islamic civilization rooted in religion. Jihad has indeed been a subject of centuries-long debate among Muslim scholars of different historical and social contexts, but it is not part of a transhistorical Muslim worldview. Rather, it belongs to "an elaborate political-theological vocabulary in which jurists, men of religious learning, and modernist reformers debated and polemicized in response to varying circumstances" (Asad).
All of which is to say that the West's tidy narration of Islam vis-à-vis modern liberal social orders has posited a set of very persuasive yet fictive binaries: freedom vs. repression; savagery vs. the rule of law; legitimate warfare vs. terrorism. So much so that in the deeply partisan, brutally contentious world of American politics, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives routinely employ a model in which "rational democrats in the West react defensively to destructive terrorists from the east" (Asad).
The point here (mine and most definitely Asad's) is not to condone or justify atrocities committed by extremists. Osama bin Laden was a bad guy and the violence he was responsible for indefensible. Period. The point, instead, is to examine the moral high ground America regularly claims in response to criminals like bin Laden and to ask the difficult questions that arise from inhabiting such a lofty perch. The point also is to be willing to entertain unsettling answers to these questions -- to name the contradictions that beset our attempts to rationalize (and celebrate) state-sponsored violence while we categorically condemn (and punish) rogue terrorism. Can we begin the slow, pressing work of acknowledging ...
... that violence is embedded in the very concept of liberty that lies at the heart of liberal social orders like the United States of America? As Wendell Berry puts it in a poem, "When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know."
... that there is no material difference between the horror inflicted by state armies and the horror inflicted by insurgents? Shot-off limbs, dead children, destroyed livelihoods -- these are the on-the-ground realities whether the munitions come from teenage suicide bombers or the U.S. military.
... that Americans seem to take a de facto stance in which war is condemned only in excess, but terrorism in its very essence.
... that terrorists often talk about what they do in the language of necessity and humanity (as do five-star generals and American Presidents). But, as Asad notes, "powerful states are never held accountable to [war crimes tribunals], only the weak and the defeated can be convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity."
... that, as Asad perceptively puts it, "human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' peoples" and that "this is necessary to a hierarchical global order."
... and that events in recent days ought to disturb us sufficiently to resist the prepackaging of acceptable responses by corporate-controlled media outlets.
To entertain the possibility that the violence wrought in the name of "liberty and justice for all" always risks bearing a moral equivalency to that waged by operatives of al-Qaeda is not to ascribe sinister motives to the American military or its leaders. Not at all. That's the easy, cynical view born of occupying the moral high ground on another plane. But the uneasy truth remains: Osama bin Laden is dead and we have killed him. And the story of violence continues -- his, ours, and the inextricable link between the two.
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.