sandbaggers: SB: Burnside's ethics

SB: Burnside's ethics

Micky DuPree (
Sat, 13 Aug 1994 10:11:57 +100 (BST)

Addressing Gayle's concerns: if you don't believe in situational ethics,
then you can only come to the conclusion that Neil Burnside was evil,
evil, evil and should have been burnt at a stake, as I gather Gayle
would wish on him. Problem is, I've met very few people (I think I can
count them on my thumbs) who didn't believe in situational ethics to
some degree, even if it was only to the extent of telling "white lies"
to spare someone's feelings (and needless to say, the few saints I've
met who refused to compromise under any circumstances were complete
social misfits). Almost everyone does it, but at the same time, almost
everyone draws the line somewhere, something that Neil Burnside couldn't
bring himself to do. If I were "C" at the end of "Opposite Numbers," I
wouldn't have Burnside for my D.Ops. (a position of mine that Gayle
perhaps wasn't clear on), but at the safe remove that fiction permits
us, I do admire certain aspects of his character at the same time I
condemn others.

I think it's important to make a distinction about motives. It's not as
though Burnside woke up every morning, rubbed his hands together in
fiendish glee, and said, "Ooh, how can I set about killing Sandbaggers
today?" Almost the opposite, he woke up every morning (assuming he
didn't work straight through the night), and asked how he could keep the
free world in general and Britain in particular safe from harm. If he
could have accomplished that by sacrificing his own happiness, career,
or even life, and sparing anyone else, he would have. I think this
partially redeems him as a fictitious character, even though if he were
real I still wouldn't have him for my D.Ops. and I'd be wary of him as a
friend. From an ethical standpoint it means he was misguided, mistaken,
and negligent. These are probably sins, and certainly character flaws,
but I just can't put him in the same category as someone whose primary
goals are to hurt people for personal gain or for kicks, which is my
working definition of an evil person. I think seeing Burnside as having
attributes to admire as well as attributes to condemn is a more complex
view of a morally complex character than simply writing him off as a
"slimy bastard."

If anything, I see SB as having more in common with Greek tragedy than
with a morality play. Burnside had the hubris to think that he could
save the world almost singlehandedly. It cost him almost everything
that he held dear in his personal life, and at least from his own
perception, he was still professionally ineffectual at the end of the
day. (I don't want to take the analogy too far, though, as I think it
breaks down in the finer points.)

I think the fact that Burnside was selfless in his devotion to a higher
cause is what underlies his fascinating cross-ideological appeal. More
than one liberal of my acquaintance has found Neil Burnside strangely
sympathetic, despite his hawkish politics being at the opposite end of
the spectrum from theirs. One liberal friend of mine titled her old SB
apa-zine "Kill a Commie for Neil" (a takeoff on an old arch-conservative
catch phrase in the U.S., "Kill a Commie for Christ"), because she, too,
noted the fact that at the end of watching an episode of the SB, she
would have this urge to join the Sandbaggers and do her best for Queen
and country (not even her own country at that!). Many conservative
ideologies boil down to nothing more than narrowly defined self-
interest, not idealism at all, but Burnside was an exception.