A recent post on the cold-blooded murder of a Korean hostage by the Taliban drew a great deal of commentary. We’re on the road today, but having a free moment and online access, I thought I’d re-examine the original post in the light of some of the criticism it has received.
The tone, admittedly, was stern. It is hard to find suitable terms to express the foolishness and naiveté of the Korean mission. Some commenters objected to my assumption that the purpose of the mission was to proselytize, and I hear that the account now being given is that the hostages were on a short-term medical-services mission in support of a more permanent evangelical outpost. This distinction is trivial; the purpose of the overall project, and the very definition of evangelical Christianity, is to take the message of salvation through Christ to those who would otherwise be forever lost — in this case, in other words, to convert the Muslims of Afghanistan to Christianity. (As I mentioned in the original post, the prospects of success are negligible, especially when one considers that the penalty for apostasy in those parts is death.)
Many are placing the blame more upon the trip’s organizers than the youthful hostages themselves; for that perspective see, in particular, this thread at the Gypsy Scholar. Another blog from Korea, the Marmot’s Hole, has been covering the story as well. Read also Kevin Kim’s comments on the previous post, and at his own website. But as I have already argued, the worst that one can say about the hostages is that they were stupendously foolish and presumptuous — foolish to try to take their message to Afghanistan in the way they did, and presumptuous to assume that the intended audience would want to hear it in the first place. Neither of those should be capital offenses.
I spoke also in very severe terms about the Taliban, whom I said deserved, on the basis of their behavior, exclusion from the “circle of humanity”. This is a harsh assessment indeed, and as has been fairly pointed out by the most critical commenters, that is exactly the process that has been used throughout history to justify the most appalling genocide and atrocity. The Nazis, for example, prepared the ground for the Holocaust by referring to the Jews as less than human. So yes: I went too far in making such a characterization. But I do want to make clear that in distinction to the systematic dehumanization of the Jews by the Nazis, I criticize the Taliban not on the basis of race or ethnicity, but solely on the basis of their actions, which are, I think, beyond the norms of what present-day civilization has any reason to tolerate. The murder of helpless hostages, the slaughter of mere schoolgirls for being so audacious as to seek an education†, the control by terror of the polities they overrun, the oppression of women, the sponsorship of terrorism in support of a medieval, sexually repressive, and brutal theocracy (not to mention their outrageous demolition of the majestic Buddhist statues at Bamiyan), mark them as implacable foes of all the norms of the 21st-century world. Civilization, however tolerant and morally enlightened, must always confront those who violate its fundamental principles. We incarcerate violent people, and in the severest examples put them to death; the presumption is that by their defiance of civilization’s norms they have forfeit any clam to membership. Those who would argue that the Taliban have the “right” to do as they like within their own borders†† must keep in mind that it is from within those same borders that the Taliban, acting with the full authority of the Afghan state they had usurped, effectively declared war on Western civilization in 2001, and were driven from power in response. They are fighting now to reassert the grip of their odious and unmerciful tyranny upon the Afghan people.
But are they human? Yes. They are, and given the horrors that institutionalized dehumanization of unwelcome groups has unleashed in the past, I withdraw my earlier remark. They are human indeed, and therefore morally responsible for their cruelty. And as such, a civilized world is, in my opinion, fully justified in condemning them, and in opposing them to the fullest extent of its ability.
- † Think of that. Attacking young girls with automatic weapons for the “crime” of going to school.
- †† “Nonsense upon stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham said. The idea that national sovereignty means that any vicious regime can brutalize a captive populace with impunity is, I think, deeply misguided.