Monday, September 06, 2004

Good Taste after a Crisis

Now that the Beslan crisis has reached its heart-rending end, people are trying (as human beings always do) to assess the matter and see where everything stands. It occurs to me (as it occurred to me after 9/11) that some people do not understand how to put an event in context without excusing it, whether they intend to do so or not; and this is a rather serious failure of taste. We do need to put events in context to understand them properly; what we must never do is go about excusing inexcusable actions. In the Beslan case, for instance, it is important to know at least something about Russian abuses in the Chechen conflict; but taking schoolchildren hostages is not acceptable whatever motivations or history might be behind it, and one thing discussion of cases like this must do is avoid the transitivity of responsibility over occasions: in this case, any hint that because of those abuses it is 'really' the Russians who are responsible for the hostage-taking.

The difference is between occasional causality and exercise of agency. If, for instance, an abusive husband beats his wife for serving dinner late, we all recognize the hollowness of the excuse, "Look what you're making me do!" This is an attempt to pass off responsibility to the wife. In understanding what happened, we need to recognize that the wife's serving the dinner late was the occasion for the abuse; but this is not actually relevant to assessing the responsibility for the act. Responsibility is not transitive over occasions; you cannot blame something that was only the occasion for the blameworthy activity. What is relevant is exercise of agency; the wife did not in any way force the abuser to abuse her. The responsibility is his alone. Likewise, it is merely a false tact (and bad taste, and considerable stupidity) to suggest that she really did make him do it, but his action was wrong anyway. The fact is, she did not make him do it in any relevant sense at all.

It's easy to recognize the need for such a distinction in an obvious case like this, but in large-scale and complicated cases people sometimes fail to do so. To say in any way of the Beslan case, "Look what the Russians made these terrorists (freedom fighters, or whatever) do!" is to violate the distinction: it is to treat as an exercise of agency, even if one treats it only as a very attenuated exercise of agency, what is really an occasional cause. The Russians do appear to have a lot to answer for; their actions have certainly, and unsurprisingly, become occasions for responses; but the kinds of responses made are entirely under the control of those who make them. Keeping the distinction clear is one of the essential marks of good sense and reason in terrible times.

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