interesting documentary

I recently saw a documentary called The Weather Underground about the 60's leftist militant organization called the Weathermen. It was very well-done, if a bit too sympathetic to the weathermen.

It raises a lot of good questions, though, about what constitutes ethical behavior in a world where large forces effect large numbers of lives, sometimes in very negative ways. It also raises good questions about the ethics and the strategic effectiveness and ineffectiveness of violence.

As someone who believes that situations can potentially arise where the most ethical response involves violence (i.e., as someone who isn't a pacifist), I was forced to confront very tricky questions about the concepts of ethical vs. unethical applications of violence. It seems to me that if one adopts a utilitarian ethic, which governments essentially do when they conduct war, then it is difficult from a purely moral standpoint to condemn those who adopt a similar ethic in oppostion to war, as the weathermen did. In other words, if you support the Vietnam War, in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of innocent people were killed, then you can't very well stand in righteous indignation and shock when a terrorist group blows up a building in opposition to the war.

You can condemn the goal, you can condemn the effectiveness, you can condemn the ideology, but it is difficult to qualitatively condemn the technique of terrorism as immoral while simultaneously supporting the ethical permissability of other forms of violence. Some might argue that conventional military powers don't target civilians directly (at least not according to official policy), but does that really make state sanctioned violence more ethical than terrorism? Is it really worse to intentionally kill 3 people than to unintentionally kill 50,000? Was it immoral for German theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer to attempt to assasinate Hitler?

In a similar vein, I think the film very effectively portrayed the level of dedication that some of these people possessed. Regardless of one's opinion of their goals or their techniques, it is difficult to deny that they were the real deal. One got a real sense of "we're not in Kansas anymore," that these people were willing to change their whole way of life for their cause. I'm not trying to laud them, but only to contrast that palpable sense of dedication with the condition of the modern left--- the oppostion to the Iraq War, for example.

I in no way support what the Weathemen did (although I should note that they only destroyed property; they never killed anybody). At the end of the day, I think that if you make moral allowances for terrorists because you sympathize with their cause, then you can't very well complain when someone from the opposite cause adopts the same technique. I also think they were foolish for abandoning conventional politics and non-violent dissent (as George Will said of interest groups, they want the all the power of political office without having to be bothered with inconveniences like running for office). They were also extremely foolhardy, in that their techniques were not only completely ineffectual, but they were also extremely counterproductive. They, and the rest of the 60's far left, caused such a knee jerk political reaction in main stream America that the Left is still paying the price today.

I was continually reminded throughout the film of the Earlham pie thrower, Josh Medlin. His justifications for his actions were eerily similar to those of the weathermen. As the length of this post suggests, all of these people really get to me, in infuriating, haunting, and humiliating ways. I am at once impressed by their dedication and shamed by my own complacency. They make me wonder what I could really do if I got off my duff and got organized, got radical. At the same time, though, I'm frightened by their extremism, because I know that there but by the grace of God go I. The line between admirable dedication and contemptable extremism is disturbingly blurry.

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