Means and ends, motes and beams

‘O wad some power the giftie gie us

tae see oursels as ithers see us!

it wad frae mony a blunder free us,

an foolish notion.’

– Burns, ‘to a Louse’

The end does not justify the means: you may not do evil that good might come; you may not violate your principles in defence of them. If I had to select a single axiom that we in the ‘West’ would do well to think deeply about, it would be this, because it is under attack from every side. It is not an easy principle – profound truths rarely are – but it is a vital one, in the precise meaning of that term – our very lives depend on it.

Terrorism, of course, rests on the inversion of this principle: for the terrorist, the end does justify the means; he (or she) may do anything, commit any atrocity, to further the cause; for the terrorist, the cause – whether that is national freedom, a political or religious ideology – justifies any act done to further it. In short, it is the essence of terrorism to believe that you may do anything to achieve your end, that the end justifies the means.

In other words, it is this principle that distinguishes us from terrorists.

That is a crucial point: it is not that the terrorists are wrong and wicked and we are right and good. Terrorists are not comic-book villains who do evil for the sake of it: no-one fights for a cause believing it to be wrong or wicked; on the contrary, it is because they are convinced of the justice of their cause that they are prepared to do anything to further it (it was Martin Scorsese, I think, who remarked, talking of the Mafia, ‘they call themselves the good people’ – everyone thinks of himself as one of the good guys).

This morning on the news we hear that the agents of a foreign power have seized a citizen by force in his own country in broad daylight, kidnapped him, and taken him out of his country. The state responsible, far from denying it, makes a boast of it, and justifies the breach of national and international law and the violation of individual rights on the grounds that this man is a terrorist and was guilty of acts which showed no regard for the law, national or international, or individual human rights. In other words, he’s a bad guy; we’re the good guys; that makes it ok.

Last night I watched a new British TV series called ‘By Any Means’ which centres on a special unit operating independently within the police force to bring wrongdoers to book ‘by any means’. Whenever the chief character is asked ‘are you police?’ he responds with what the writers doubtless hope to make a catch-phrase, ‘it’s a grey area.’ The programme is a species of comedy drama, very much along the lines of ‘Hustle’, in which a lovable band of con-artists used their remarkable talents in Robin Hood fashion to give villains their comeuppance. Now ‘Hustle’ was fine entertainment and this new version shows signs of being the same, but the premise on which it is founded is disturbing.

In ‘Hustle’ there is no question that our heroes are operating outside the law; they fall into the category of ‘lovable rogues’ and reflect that curious ambivalence that we have in our attitude to criminals, especially those that are audacious and intelligent; but that is matter for another day. In ‘By Any Means’, however, the heroes are an irregular unit of the police force operating with official sanction, not from their senior officers (to whom they are invisible) but from that mysterious place, ‘higher up.’

It is all very high-minded, of course: their targets are invariably villains of the deepest dye whose guilt is unquestionable but who have somehow evaded justice; the justice system, it is implied, is not fit for purpose – smart lawyers exploit well-intentioned but ill-considered legislation to ensure that criminals walk free. This is by no means a new theme; it is certainly present in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is ranged against a City Hall that is seen as self-serving, corrupt and weak, hindered by political correctness; though the second in the series, Magnum Force, does go some way to examine the dangers of vigilante policing implied in the first.

There have been real-life irregular police units that operated independently of the main force with sanction from ‘higher up’, but they were not lovable high-minded fellows with a twinkle in their eye: the reality of ‘By Any Means’ is the Esquadrão da Morte or ‘Death Squad’ of Brazil, off-duty policemen funded by business interests who ‘cleaned up’ criminal activity by extra-judicial killings (of street children among others) with the support of some members of the judiciary and some politicians.

On Saturday night I watched ‘Taken’ in which Liam Neeson plays a man whose daughter is kidnapped in Paris by Albanian sex-traffickers; but he also happens to be a retired ‘black-ops’ agent, effectively a one-man army trained in every lethal art. Having spoken to his daughter’s kidnappers on the phone (and we of course have witnessed her kidnap in harrowing detail as she is dragged from her hiding place under the bed) and told them that he will hunt them down and kill them, he proceeds to do just that, leaving a trail of carnage and destruction as he chops, stabs, shoots and tortures his way across Paris. At one point he kidnaps one of the gang and wires him up to the mains electricity, explaining that he used to do this ‘professionally’ as it were, though that tended to be in countries where the power supply was unreliable, which here in France it is not. Having broken the man’s resistance by a few applications of current he then leaves, but not before switching the current on again to ensure his slow and agonising death – because his crimes merit that, of course: he is a bad man, and Liam Neeson’s character’s cause is just.

The French police are of no use in the matter, and would sooner deport Neeson than attempt to save his daughter; in fact, they are worse than useless, they are actually corrupt, and turn a blind eye to the traffickers in exchange for cash. Though this film is French in origin (directed by Pierre Morel, produced and co-written by Luc Besson) and police corruption is a staple of French movies, it is notable that it dates from a period of US disenchantment with the French government over the Iraq war, when a US politician famously branded the French ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and patriotic American restaurateurs were renaming ‘French Fries’ ‘Freedom Fries’.

And the nationality of the villains is interesting – the Albanian sex-traffickers sell the daughter on, because she is a virgin, and in the subsequent auction which Neeson’s character gatecrashes, the successful bidder is an Arab sheikh. In the short-hand of Hollywood cinema, Albanians – like Eastern Europeans generally – are ruthless criminals, while Arabs (especially wealthy ones) have been a by-word for concupiscence since Rudolph Valentino first donned a burnous in The Sheik.

After driving at high speed the wrong way along that road by the Seine that all the foreign agents drive along the wrong way at high speed, Neeson’s character leaps from a bridge onto the sheikh’s barge and proceeds to slaughter everyone on board, aided by the fact that his enemies have – in the usual Hollywood manner – inexplicably loaded their machine-pistols with special ‘no-hit’ bullets, while Neeson’s deadly-accurate gun has the usual inexhaustible magazine, in the great tradition of white-hatted cowboys whose six-shooters went on shooting well into double figures without being reloaded.

And the justification for all this? well, of course, it is to save his daughter – his virgin daughter – from ‘a fate worse than death’: what man who calls himself a man would do otherwise? In presenting it in these personal terms, as a man fighting to save his family, the film recalls the classic question that was put to conscientious objectors in the First World War – ‘and what would you do, if a German soldier was ravishing your sister?’ – in other words, if the national conflict could be recast as a personal one, wouldn’t you see it as justified then? 

Are there not some things that every one of us would be prepared to do anything to protect?

In other words, is there not for all of us some particular end that justifies the means?

That is a hard question, because perhaps everyone can imagine being in a situation where someone we love is threatened and we like to think that we would do all that we could to protect and save them, regardless; and that is why we do well to be deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to recast the actions of a state in such personal terms – ‘we are doing this to defend your homes and families and all you hold most dear.’ ‘Taken’ can certainly be seen as a metaphor for a particular strand of American foreign policy, whether or not that was its makers’ primary intention.

Why do we have judicial processes? Why do we not allow the police to be also, like Judge Dredd, judge, jury and executioner? It is because, down the centuries, we have acquired some small wisdom with regard to the limitations of our human nature: things are not always what they seem; it is wise to have a presentation of evidence, and a consideration of it by disinterested parties, who have no stake in the outcome; it is wise to have a balance between expert knowledge and the common sense of the community, so that a verdict, when it is arrived at, has public confidence. And we do things this way not because it is infallible – it certainly is not – nor because it is efficient – it is laborious and time consuming and costly – but because it the best and fairest way we have been able to evolve. As such, it has become part of our way of life: this is how we do things.

And an important part of that way of life is that we stick to our principles: we do not violate them out of fear or from political expediency. Again, this is hard-learned wisdom about human nature – once you start making exceptions, once you allow the law to be bent ‘in certain circumstances’, you play into the hands of the rich and powerful, who will always be more persuasive than the poor and weak. Being fair to everyone, in practice, does not mean treating everyone equally – it means taking special care to protect those who cannot stand up for themselves, those whose weakness leaves them prey to the strong – ‘the widow and the orphan’, if you like.

Something that has a bearing here – perhaps an unexpected one – is the parable of the mote and the beam. It presents, in vivid and comical terms, a particular human failing – our tendency in judging to magnify the faults of others while diminishing our own: we draw our brother’s attention to the speck of dust in his eye, while ignoring the dirty great plank that is in ours.

The parables, for all their apparent simplicity, are very subtle forms of story telling; a key feature of many of them is their tendency to wrong-foot the listener. There are generally two parties – which do we identify with? Is it the prodigal son who wastes all his substance on liquor and women, or his hard-working brother who did all the right things? Is it the labourers in the vineyard who toiled all day in the heat, or the johnny-come-latelies who were hired at the eleventh hour? is it the Pharisee or the publican?

The invitation is to identify ourselves with the sinner; our tendency is to sympathise with the righteous. You could say that the message of the parables is that ‘the danger starts with seeing yourself as the good guy’. We see the beam in the other’s eye readily enough, though this is actually the opposite of what the parable tells us.

Just so with the terrorist: the beam in his eye is that he is willing to inflict appalling atrocities on the innocent, do monstrous injustice to further the cause that he thinks just and right – and by doing that, he surely undermines any rightness or justice his cause may have had; we see that plainly enough though he does not perceive it.

But what is the beam that the terrorist sees in our eye? Is it not something surprisingly similar? That for all our talk of fairness, justice, democracy and the rest, our way of life rests, not on these fine principles, but on our capability and willingness, if challenged, to defend it with overwhelming force? That our pre-eminent position in the world is not owing to our virtue but our might?

Of course, that’s not how we see it. These occasional blemishes – like inventing special categories of prisoner to get round the Geneva Convention, like ‘special rendition’, like farming out torture to folks who do that kind of thing, like maintaining at colossal expense a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying all human life – these are just specks. What we stand for, that’s the important thing. Our cause really is just. After all, we’re the good guys, aren’t we?

One thought on “Means and ends, motes and beams

  1. Without necessarily being part of it, we are all familiar with the concept of an underworld – a substratum of society which follows its own rules, based on a different value set to ours. I say there is also an ‘overworld’ , of people, principally government agencies, who recognise the Law but do not accept that they themselves should be bound by it.
    This is well portrayed in “Edge of Darkness” – the original TV drama series with John Thaw, not the more ‘modern’ remake.
    I only have the old version, but I am quite sure that an exercise comparing the later one to the original would show up a great deterioration in the moral and ethical standards of governments, which is inevitably reflected in society as a whole.

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