The Pleasures of Assassination
by Theodore Dalrymple (Jan. 2008)
When President Bush described the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as cowardly, he chose precisely the wrong word. (He was not the only person to do so, but he was the most important one to do so.) In fact, it was a very courageous act: for it requires great courage to assassinate someone in the middle of a large and volatile crowd favourable to that person, and above all then to blow yourself up just to make sure that you have succeeded. Not many people have that degree of courage: I certainly don’t.
The two Islamic militants whose telephone call was putatively intercepted by the Pakistani security services, and who are claimed by them to have been the organisers of the assassination, were quite right when they called the two men who did it ‘brave boys.’ They were brave all right; I do not see how it can very well be denied. Even if the transcript of the telephone call turns out to be a complete work of fiction, the authors of it got something right that President Bush got wrong.
So why, in this respect, is the leader of the Free World wrong and the Islamic militants (assuming for the sake of argument that the intercept was genuine) right? I think it is because of a confusion about the nature of certain virtues, bravery among them. Bravery is generally counted a virtue, something that we admire; while the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was despicable, something that we deplore. Therefore, we have to deny the assassins bravery, and call them cowardly, or else we concede that they are, at least in one respect, virtuous. For what is it to be virtuous except to exercise one or more of the virtues?
But in fact, courage or bravery is not a virtue irrespective of the circumstances in which it is exercised. Courage in pursuit of a despicable goal is no virtue, quite the reverse in fact; and most virtues, indeed, are virtuous only when exercised correctly, that is to say when in pursuit of laudable goals. There are few that are right in and all circumstances whatsoever.
This confusion does not concern only political rhetoric: it invades other spheres of life as well, for example art criticism. One often hears the word originality used as a term of praise in respect of a work of art, without any assessment of whether the originality has produced anything worthwhile in itself. In fact, it is easy to be original; there is nothing easier than to think of something that someone else has never done; you could probably draw up a list of a hundred such things in half an hour. But there are often extremely good reasons why no one has ever done them, chief among which are that it would be of no aesthetic or intellectual value to do them. Originality is thus no virtue in itself when applied to a work of art (or to anything else): and it is not surprising that a striving for originality in art in itself, unconnected to any other purpose, leads to work of little value, or even to work of negative value. No one would think an original scientific theory of any value, unless it had some evidence in its favour (though, of course, it might, in spite of itself, provoke some thought).
Most virtues are conditional upon the circumstances in which they are exercised. Only a strict Kantian would argue that it is morally obligatory to point a murderer in the direction of his victim, for example, on the grounds that one should always tell the truth. (Once, while out walking my dog, a car full of young men drew up to me, and I thought they would want directions to a road nearby. Instead, the driver said to me, ‘Excuse me, mate, can you tell me which way the prostitutes are?’ At that time, there were street-walkers not very far away, all of them drug-addicts: was it right or wrong to tell the young men where to find them? I compromised, and gave them only the vaguest of directions.)
Virtues exercised irrespective of the circumstances become frightening. Extreme or habitual bravery often, but not always, turns into recklessness: the assassination of Benezir Bhutto was a case in point, in which extreme bravery was not recklessness. The latter is indifference to danger; but the suicide bomber was not indifferent to danger, indeed for him the only danger was that he should not succeed in dying for the cause. He was not reckless: he was determined.
Almost all of the virtues that you can think of are conditional on moral judgment for their correct exercise. Truthfulness, generally a virtue, can easily become the sadistic enjoyment of uttering painful truths for no reason other than that they give pain and distress. Generosity or kindness when too overflowing humiliates the recipient and can degenerate into the exercise of power over others. Prudence can become pusillanimity and a cover for cowardice and inactivity. Politeness when invariable and invariant becomes insincerity. And so on and so forth.
All this is perfectly obvious, at least on a moment’s reflection. But we often forget it in the heat of the moment and therefore, when not wishing to ascribe a quality to an enemy that is a virtue in some circumstances, we ascribe to him the vice that is the opposite of that virtue, though in fact there is no evidence that he suffers from that vice at all, quite the reverse in fact.
The opposite of bravery is of course cowardice. And here we see an asymmetry: while bravery is not always a virtue, cowardice is always a vice. A lack of positive bravery is not always cowardice, however: we do not call the decision of someone to run away and fight another day cowardice, we call it prudence. Of course, in practice human motives are often mixed, or slide into one another. A man may claim to act from prudence when really he is concerned only to save his own skin, not to fight another day but for its own sake. But the fact that this is often the case does not mean that there is really no such virtue as prudence, which is the opposite of foolhardiness.
We do not find it enough, then, to deny our enemy the quality that in some circumstances is a virtue, for fear that we should be thought to be sympathising with him; we seek to endow him with the opposite vice, cowardice in the case of the assassins of Bhutto, though the evidence for this is completely lacking, indeed points in the other direction.
It is, of course, much easier to imagine someone who perfectly incarnates vice than virtue, which is why in literature villains are so often more memorable than heroes, and so much more believable. It is far easier to find fault in Benazir Bhutto, for example, than it is to find anything good to say about her murderers. (It didn’t take long after her death for people to point out that she was haughty, with a strong sense of hereditary entitlement, possibly corrupt or at least very tolerant of corruption, and only equivocally a democrat.) As we have seen, the bravery of the assassins does not count as a virtue, and any minor virtues that they might have had - that they were good to their mothers, for example, or that they were considerate brothers - are nugatory by comparison with the evil they have wrought.
It would just be possible, I suppose, to characterise those who planned the assassination as cowards, in the sense that they were sending a young man or young men to a near-certain death that they themselves did not risk. But it would be easy to see how they would justify it to themselves: that the young man was expendable to the cause in a way that they were not expendable because of their experience and ability, and that in any case the young man or men in question would ultimately benefit from their acts. Besides, it seems to me unlikely that the planners were in any real sense cowards or cowardly: I have travelled a little in that area of the world and cowards are very few there. They are no more cowards than are generals who does not routinely expose themselves to the line of fire.
Does it really matter if assassination of Benazir Bhutto is incorrectly described by the President and other notables? The important thing is the event itself, after all. Words are but counters, as Hobbes say; but they are the money of fools.
Here I am with Confucius: I think words matter. If what is said is not what is meant, then in the end cynicism corrodes everything.
To call the assassination cowardly indicates a lack of clarity of thought, not only about the event itself but about the virtue of courage and perhaps even about virtue in general. And we want our leaders to be clear-sighted, not to misapprehend what confronts them and us. We are certainly not confronted by a band of cowards.
There are many ways in which the assassination could with justice have been characterised, without resort to the one word about it that was simply not true. It was, of course, an act of great brutality. What kind of people think that it is right to kill twenty people more or less at random during a peaceful rally (unless mere attendance at the rally were sufficient justification for killing them, in which case many thousands of people could rightfully be killed, perhaps many millions)? People who are brave are not necessarily good or clear thinkers.
Clarity of mind is perhaps not the most widely distributed of human attributes, though La Rochefoucauld tells us that we are all well-satisfied with our own powers of reason. What, for example, did the rioters who smashed shop fronts and burn cars after the assassination think they were achieving by their activities? What purpose did they think they were serving?
Having attended a riot or two (as an observer, I hasten to add), I should say that they were not so much serving a political cause as enjoying themselves. Moral indignation is, of course, a pleasure in itself, one of the few that costs nothing, and likewise one of the few that never lets you down; but it is as nothing compared with the pleasures of destruction in the name of a good cause. What greater pleasure is there in the world than to smash a large pane of glass for the good of one’s country? It was the Nineteenth Century Russian aristocratic anarchist Bakunin who said that the destructive urge was also a creative urge; he would have been more accurate if he had said that it was a pleasurable one.
For myself, I can say that when I give vent to anger, which I try to do as rarely as possible precisely because of this, a still small voice that is located (physically, it seems to me) at or in the back of my head, says to me, ‘You are enjoying this.’ And I know that the still small voice is telling the truth.
I do not, of course, wish to say that anger is never justified, even on some occasions extreme anger. But on many occasions, perhaps most, when we are angry, we are really rather enjoying ourselves, giving vent disproportionately because the expression of anger is enjoyable in itself. To burn cars in the street and smash shops is simply not a reasonable response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto: it is a pretext to allow the vandal that lurks inside every civilised man to emerge and act out. The tinkle of glass, the crackle of flames: are there any sounds more soothing to the human ear, at least for a time?
The unexamined enjoyment of moral outrage is what killed Benazir Bhutto. Moral outrage is the only pleasure allowed to religious fanatics, but they can indulge it in full and unfortunately it is inexhaustible.
I think I begin to see, as through a glass darkly, why the ancient Greek injunction, to know thyself, was so cardinally important.