Guest Post: Moral Relativism And Patriotism As Weapons Of The State

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Submitted by James E. Miller of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada,

Over the weekend, a suicide bomber suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda struck a funeral in Yemen, killing forty five individuals.  The funeral was attended predominantly by members of a militia which aided the Yemeni Army in recapturing a town held by Al Qaeda.  The attack was rightfully condemned by major media outlets.  Viciously killing mourners at a funeral is the very definition of terrorism as it sends a message that no time or place is off limits from a surprise attack.  It shows a complete lack of respect for the sanctity of life.  Al Qaeda has become known for these attacks in recent years.  American national security officials and politicians have reacted by denouncing such attacks as a sign of the utter savagery of the terrorist group.

Yet Al Qaeda is not alone in this tactic.  The CIA’s not-so-secret drone campaign is also guilty of targeting funerals attended by civilians.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone attacks have been responsible for the deaths of “dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.”  As of February of this year, at least 535 civilians have been killed by drone strikes since President Obama took office; 20 of which were killed while attending funerals.  Last June, a gathering of mourners was targeted for a strike in Pakistan.  The 10 people killed in that attack had come together to grieve over the death of a “brother of a militant commander” killed just a day before in another drone strike.

There is little denouncement of the civilian casualties that are a product of the U.S.’s foreign policy.  The narrative presented by Washington lawmakers and the press is that of a struggle between the forces of good and evil.  The terrorists of the Middle East are ruthless barbarians while the troops and Pentagon officials are goodhearted protagonists trying to liberate an oppressed people.  The blood of innocent women and children on the hands of Al Qaeda is damming evidence of their depravity.  That same blood on the hands of the U.S. defense establishment is a sign of triumph.  It is moral relativism on a national scale; slaying of the innocent is terrible on one hand while honorable on the other.  As LRC columnist Laurence Vance notes in regard to how atrocities committed by private individuals are perceived differently than those committed by the military:

 

I don’t know if there are theaters in Afghanistan, but if U.S. soldiers enter a building in Afghanistan and kill twelve and wound fifty-eight – like James Holmes allegedly did in Colorado – they are lauded as heroes.

Military officials frequently go on television and tell not just Americans but the rest of the world that they are making a sacrifice for maintaining safety and freedom around the globe.  They invoke patriotism to justify their actions.  Taxpayers forced into picking up the tab for the endless warfare repay the favor by unquestioningly handing their respect over to crusaders of state-sanctioned mass murder.  From the perspective of enhancing and enlarging the central state, it’s the prefect scheme.  Force feeding the concept of “patriotic duty” is a great way to get people to accept the otherwise deplorable actions of government officials.  It is why Randolph Bourne aptly recognized war as the “health of the state.”

Today, the conduct committed by state enforcement officials, whether they be imperialistic endeavors or the negation of human liberty at home, are rationalized by the way of apologetic relativism.  This relativism stands in opposition to absolute moral principles.  Theft, murder, eavesdropping, lying, issuing threats, and beating upon others are all actions looked down upon by sensible individuals.  They lead society astray from an amicable coexistence.

The state, by the doings of its executors and administrators, embodies everything you were told was wrong as a child.  Children are usually taught straightforward rules of acceptable behavior at a young age.  As they grow older, they are bombarded with propaganda from school, television, and even their own parents that attempt to remove the government away from basic considerations of right and wrong.  These efforts are part of an ongoing agenda to convince the public what they see as morally repugnant behavior is justified when done under the refuge of government authorization.  The institutional predation of the state is supported by a kind of war on reason fought by those seek most fervently to maintain the exploitive status quo.  The objective is enough consent on the part of the people to overwhelm any high-spirited protest.  While independent and intellectual criticism is the state’s worst enemy, unthinking acceptance is its greatest ally.

The ruling establishment sees little danger in violent uprising.  What they fear most is the turning of public opinion against their legitimacy.  They fear losing consent above all things because soon after, their lordship must come to an end.   Support among the people is what keeps tyranny alive; not a violent clenching down upon personal freedom.

Though the American Revolution is frequently evoked as a display of this truth, a better example exists in colonial Pennsylvania nearly a century before the Declaration of Independence was penned.  Upon being granted the lands of Pennsylvania by King Charles II in March of 1681, William Penn proceeded to establish a colony governed over by a constitution of sorts.  The positions of governor and proprietor were created along with an elected Council that saw to executive and judicial functions.  An appointed Assembly was also formed which had the authority to levy taxes and veto laws passed by the Council.  Because of the liberties guaranteed in the new colony, the low tax burden, and Penn’s selling of land at cheap prices, immigrants flooded into Pennsylvania in its formative years.  Penn would eventually return to England in 1684 but upon doing so found that the colonists were refusing to pay taxes including the land taxes he counted on to maintain a hefty profit.  The Council, which was elected by the people and had the sole authority in executing laws, refrained from collecting taxes and left the colony autonomous.  Penn would eventually appoint a commission to restore his lost opportunity of compensation through force.  The colonists simply ignored the commission which led to its collapse.  Penn then instituted a deputy governor to ensure for the collection of taxes but that effort was also came to be in vain.  As Murray Rothbard summarizes

William Penn had the strong and distinct impression that his “holy experiment” had slipped away from him, had taken a new and bewildering turn. Penn had launched a colony that he thought would be quietly subject to his dictates and yield him a handsome profit. By providing a prosperous haven of refuge for Quakers, he had expected in turn the rewards of wealth and power. Instead, he found himself without either. Unable to collect revenue from the free and independent-minded Pennsylvanians, he saw the colony slipping gracefully into outright anarchism—into a growing and flourishing land of no taxes and virtually no state.

The peace-loving Quakers and colonists were able to dissolve an intrusive government by their sheer unwillingness to recognize its legitimacy.  They properly regarded the various attempts at governance and taxation imposed upon them as thuggish means of exploitation.  In short, they saw through the facade of the state being above moral considerations.  Rejecting state rule did not make them bad citizens but admirable in the sense that they ended up living harmoniously with each other in its absence. As Penn would lament in the midst of Pennsylvania’s brush with halcyon anarchism, he and his appointed rulers had lost “their authority one way or another in the spirits of the people.”  The idea that men are born to be free instead of in shackles was enough to overcome government compulsion.

The first step toward liberty is to see through the masking fog the state engulfs itself in to carry out its deeds of conquest.  It is the realization that murder is murder no matter if it is committed by a street thug or an army captain piloting a remote controlled aircraft armed with hellfire missiles.  It is the realization that debasing of the currency by a select few central bankers is no different from the shysters of old who would shave off small portions from gold bullion so that it would appear to retain the same weight.  Finally, it is the realization that glorifying war in the name of “loving thy country” is a grand swindle used to deceive the simple-minded into falling in line like a herd of sheep soon be slaughtered.

Using reason to discover absolute truths is an essential part of determining how one should live their life in accordance with sound ethics.  Relativism denies this.  It can deny that evil is committed by the state and that reprehensible acts are perfectly okay when done by individuals with guns and badges.  All it takes to reverse such destructive thinking is the realization that state authority deserves no pass in moral scrutiny.  Withdrawing consent comes next on the path to a free society.