The following article, by Norman Geras, originally appeared in the Thursday, July 21 issue of The Guardian, a key newspaper of the British Left, under the title, "There are Apologists Amongst Us." It was written before the latest round of bombings, which occurred yesterday. Those blasts further punctuate the moral confusion of the leftists Geras takes to task in his essay. -- The Editors.
Within hours of the bombs going off two weeks ago, the voices that one could have predicted began to make themselves heard with their root-causes explanations for the murder and maiming of a random group of tube and bus passengers in London. It was due to Blair, Iraq, illegal war and the rest of it. The first voices, so far as I know, were those of the SWP and George Galloway, but it wasn't very long - indeed no time at all, taking into account production schedules - before the stuff was spreading like an infestation across the pages of this newspaper, where it has remained.
No words of dismay, let alone grief, could be allowed to pass some people's lips without the accompaniment of a "We told you so" and an exercise in blaming someone other than the perpetrators. No sense of what such a tragedy might call for or rule out on the first day. Exactly as if you were to hear from a distraught friend that her husband had just been murdered while walking in a "bad" neighbourhood, and to respond by saying you were sorry about this but it was foolish of him to have been walking there by himself. We had the same after 9/11; still, one nurtures the illusion that people learn. Evidently some don't.
It needs to be seen and said clearly: there are, among us, apologists for what the killers do. They make more difficult the fight to defeat them. The plea will be - it always is - that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy seeking to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else.
Note the selectivity in the way root-causes arguments function. Purporting to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements or actions for which their proponent wants to engage our indulgence, and in order to direct blame towards some party towards whom he or she is unsympathetic.
A hypothetical example illustrates the point. Suppose that, on account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this and express their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame this act of violence on the government's decision or urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn't happen, because the anger of the thugs doesn't begin to justify what they have done. The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they're very selective in what they want to "understand."
If causes and explanation are indeed a serious enterprise and not merely a convenient partisan game, then it needs to be recognised that causality is one thing and moral responsibility another, though the two are related. The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity doesn't show that they, as well as the direct agents, are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn't serve to justify it. Furthermore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won't necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it.
The "We told you so" crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London. How do they know this, these clever people? For what they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. If it was only an influencing motivational cause among others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then it's not the case that the London bombings wouldn't have happened but for the Iraq war.
Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never go for the most obvious of these. This is the cause, indeed, which shows, by its absence, why most critics of the Iraq war or of anything else don't murder people when they are angry. It is the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder. That cause somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes.
There are apologists among us, and they have to be fought intellectually and politically. They do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we all share. Because we believe in and value these, we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to challenge their excuses without let-up.
Norman Geras is professor emeritus in government at the University of Manchester; a longer version of this article can be found at www.normblog.typepad.com.