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Anyone who wishes to pontificate on moral matters would do well to consider carefully the following true story.

Chaman is a small Pakistani town on the southern border of Afghanistan. It is about sixty miles south of Qandahar, in Afghanistan, and a similar distance north of the Pakistani regional center of Quetta. The inhabitants are ethnically and culturally related to their neighbors to the north (there have been calls for an independent state of Baluchistan, to be carved largely out of Pakistan and partly out of Iran and Afghanistan), so it is perhaps not surprising that a local soccer team is called the Young Afghan Football Club, and even less so that the club should send its junior team to play a three-match series in Qandahar.

This they did, in July 2000. The first two matches went off without reported incident, and on Saturday the 15th the players were warming up for the third, when they ran into unexpected trouble. The cops busted them.

Their offense? Wearing shorts.

Shorts are normal attire for soccer players everywhere else in the world, but the Afghan authorities, who have an idiosyncratic interpretation of Muslim law that most Islamic scholars say reflects their tribal traditions rather than the edicts of the religion, insist that all men, including athletes, wear long tunics and baggy pants even while playing football. (They are also forbidden to shave their beards and required to wear a cap or turban at all times; women are forbidden to play sports at all, and required to hide their faces and wear the familiar black shroud.) The Pakistani kids were thus guilty of indecent exposure.

From the scanty reports in the western media, it appears that there was quite a kerfuffle. Many of the several hundred spectators (thousands by some reports) stormed the field and scores were injured in the ensuing melee, under cover of which five of the visitors managed to escape and take refuge in the Pakistani consulate; the other twelve (six reserves were involved in addition to the normal team of eleven) were hauled off to the local hoosegow and held overnight. There the police, relying on an instinct that would have been familiar to many Americans in the mid-1960s, exercised summary justice by shaving their heads.

The next day they were released and deported. Their manager, Abdul Qayyum, described the players, rather mildly under the circumstances, as being "quite annoyed" and pointed out that "Guests are not treated like this in our society."

With this sentiment, the Afghan regional Governor, Maulvi Mohammed Hasan, agreed and he soon issued a formal apology. It became clear that the local cops had acted on their own, and they soon heard from higher authority. On Wednesday, national Sports Minister Shakoor Muttmain announced in Kabul that the official responsible had been fired and arrested. (No word on his punishment, but a prayer on two on his behalf might not go amiss.) "We condemn the incident," Muttmain repeated, "Because the Pakistanis were our guests."

He went on to clarify the policy: The dress code remains, even for visiting teams, to whom it must be made clear before their arrival. As a concession, however, the requirement that all males wear beards will be waived for foreign athletes.

This last pronouncement seems to be both strangely ironic under the circumstances, head-shaving being after all an odd sort of punishment for beardless knee- and skull-flashers, and a subtle dig at the Pakistani authorities, who the year before refused to let a team of Afghani boxers compete because of their failure to shave. Presumably it reflects the unfortunate reality that it would be impractical to insist that foreign men eschew the razor for some appropriate interval (a year might do it) before entering the country.

All this is easy to make fun of, particularly since the consequences for the victims were not severe, but it does point up some difficult moral questions, which may be easier to consider objectively in light of the relative triviality of the issue.

The cops were obviously wrong, as everyone else agrees. If they knew enough about what was going on to be there in armed force for the warm-up, they could certainly have issued a warning in advance and prevented the confrontation. Failing that, they could have delivered the players straight to their consulate; the detention and especially the head-shaving are inexcusable. As indeed, to repeat, the Taliban authorities agreed.

The Taliban seem, given the state of their law, to have it about right. Foreigners should be warned, in advance, when it is known that behavior they would consider normal is locally criminal. Guests should be treated with respect and get the benefit of the doubt, but only if doubt there is. Fair enough. We do this all the time: In keeping with the wishes of the community, as expressed in a local ordinance, we request that you refrain from smoking.

What people in the West object to about the Taliban is, of course, the law itself, notably its provisions concerning the behavior of women. Me too. And if you grant the premise that women have an equal right to partake in the political process, then I strongly suspect that a majority of adult Afghans disagree with significant parts of the law. (In the case of football attire, the news reports imply that the riot was provoked by the arrests, but are not clear.) But there's the rub: They don't grant the premise.

Nor do they grant the even deeper premise that a government and its laws should reflect the views of the majority of the population it serves. The policy clarification demonstrates that, once you grant their premise that their law is just, they are fully capable of implementing it in a thoughtful and reasoned manner, at least as regards to foreigners. But their view of the justice of the law is not based on the principles we in the West generally claim as the foundation of our system, which we usually throw together under the catch-all term democracy.

Nor is ours. Not fundamentally. Democracy is at root a means, not an end (even disregarding the obvious flaws in how it is implemented). The end is rather mysterious. It has something to do with what is right, which is of course exactly what the Taliban claims as their justification. In our case, we approach that by means of a sort of approximation, on the assumption that if we take everyone's opinion into account, the consensus will bring us to the appropriate answer. On the whole, this is a pretty good idea, better than any of the available alternatives, but the unstated assumption (with which I happen to agree) is that every one of us has access, to some degree, to the truth. Some see it clearer than others and become the great moral leaders of our society, whether they found religions or drive movements, while the rest of us essentially recognize truth and express our views by giving our approval, whether at a place of worship or in the voting booth or simply by the way we act.

The challenge of any system is handling disagreement. We do disagree, all the time, even on very basic issues such as whether a society has the right to kill its own members. Any American who wants to tell the Afghans how to regulate their society had better confront the fact that capital punishment is considered immoral in most of the western world. That's right, immoral. Not inefficient, not unnecessary, not subject to mistake and abuse, just flat wrong. So do many Americans (how many is a matter of dispute), but then many Europeans disagree. Life is messy, and that's just the way it always will be – within any given society, be it local, regional, national or global, on virtually any given topic, there will be people with both strongly and weakly opposing opinions. Live with it.

That applies to the matter of revealing kneecaps, which seems trivial to most of us, and to what seems like the much deeper question of human genetic engineering. Do those who want to ban the practice have something in common with the Taliban? Certainly. So do those who insist they have a personal right to do it.

Whatever decision we make, someone will be offended.



 July 2000