Democrats & Liberals Archives

Moral Equivalence

The most controversial song on Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” comes right between the title track and “My City of Ruins,” which he sang at the 9/11 concert shortly after that horrible event.

“Paradise”tries to get inside the head of a Muslim suicide bomber. (It tries, and in the end rejects the bomber. “I see you on the other side, I search for the peace in your eyes, But they’re as empty as paradise…I break above the waves.”)

“Paradise” was instantly condemned by the Right as claiming a kind of “moral equivalence” between those who destroyed the World Trade Center and its victims.

But Springsteen put his finger on the central issue of our times. Should we seek to find the humanity in our enemies, or must we all condemn them as “evil-doers,” in Bush’s words.

Let me say something hard here. Saddam Hussein is a man. His sons were men. Osama Bin Laden is a man. They are not “inhuman,” they are not “animals.” They are, and were, men, human beings touched by vanity, self-righteousness, and fear. In Bin Laden’s case add a messianic religious faith, one in which only the pure could hope to attain heaven, with the rest condemned to an eternity of torment. (If that sounds like someone you know, look inside your own heart.)

In saying this I put myself “beyond the pale” of conservative political discussion. The Right rejects, absolutely, any suggestion of humanity for our enemies. They are our enemies, after all. They have murdered thousands in cold blood. They are killing our people still. They are monsters, inhuman. Anyone who questions this is, themselves, inhuman.

When you take this attitude, however, a lot can be excused. We can autopsy their bodies and put them on public display (but their display of our dead was a war crime). We can kill thousands of Iraqi innocents in the name of the greater good, as we have. We can ignore the rebuilding of Afghanistan, as we have. We can occupy nations and call appointed occupying authorities “democracy.” We can do all this only because we are good, absolutely, and they are evil, absolutely. Anyone who questions is a traitor.

We can even do this in our own country. We can have police search through your library records or Internet cache, without a warrant. The President can label American citizens as “enemy combatants” and instantly have all their rights erased, without judicial overview.

We faced these questions in the late Stanley Kramer’s 1961 movie “Judgement at Nuremberg.” Burt Lancaster played one of four former German judges tried for twisting the law on behalf of the Nazis. American chief judge Spencer Tracy spends most of the movie being shown a moral equivalence between himself and Lancaster. Finally, in Lancaster’s prison cell, Tracy explains how he sentenced Lancaster’s character to life. You crossed the line, he says, “the first time you condemned a man to death whom you knew to be innocent.” To some conservatives, this is still a very fine line. They condemn the movie because it wasn’t absolute enough.

But the line is a fine one. You may not see it when you cross it. Have we crossed it? Our failure to restore public service to Iraq, our passive attitude in Afghanistan, and the self-righteous bleating coming from the Right itself tells me that, if we haven’t crossed the line, we’ve come far too close for my comfort.

The question of even questioning the Right’s absolutist formulation of “good vs. evil” is the issue that now splits the Democratic Party. The Democratic Leadership Council insists that, if the issue is war or peace, America will choose war overwhelmingly, and condemn Democrats to a generation in the political wilderness. This is the entire brief against Howard Dean. Take away his initial opposition to this war, his questioning of how it is being pursued, and he is a state’s rights, balanced budget conservative. Yet the DLC calls him an ultra-leftist, McGovern, beyond the pale.

This issue has its domestic echo in the question of “moral relativism.” This is spat out like a curse among conservatives, a curse on the head of anyone who sees shades of gray in human behavior. Good is good, evil is evil, and evil must be condemned absolutely, they thunder. Anyone who questions this is, himself (or herself), evil.

What I say is that absolutism is a slippery slope. When you condemn those who do evil as inhuman, you do more than condemn “the other.” You put yourself in the role of God. You may condemn their acts, as Tracy condemned Lancaster, but not the man. The man deserves pity, even in his prison, maybe even respect.

It is God who decides absolutes. God condemns the devil, and his acolytes. God sits on his throne and cannot, himself, do evil. Earthquakes, tornadoes, plagues, these things that seem evil are just tests given us by God, tests of our faith. God doesn’t make mistakes.

This is the worldview of George W. Bush. His own Christian faith, combined with patriotism, and the horrors of 9/11, have caused him to wrap himself in ultimate authority, to claim the power of God. He is good, they are evil.

I submit this absolutism is a poison. It is political crack cocaine. It is what Osama Bin Laden overdosed upon, what Saddam Hussein overdosed upon.

Bush says he can handle it. I say, no one can.

But what is my alternative? It is, unfortunately, the complexity of reality. It is the world of the grown-up. It is the realization that justice requires compromise, that we are not perfect, that our task must be to win hearts-and-minds, to convince the Muslim world not that we’re right, but that violence is wrong.

Here is how a real Republican approached the question of war and death. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, “by the better angels of our nature.”

Compare Lincoln to Bush. “Bring it on.”

The fact is there are better angels in our nature. We must find them, and harness them, not just to win this war but to win the peace. If we fail to do that, if we continue to act as those we condemn, while claiming that “they” are absolutely evil while “we” are absolutely good, all we do is recruit more to violence.

This will be a hard argument for Democrats to win. It is complex, and it is nuanced. It is also adult. America still considers itself a young country. But it is time for America to grow up.

Posted by Danablankenhorn at July 27, 2003 3:16 PM