May 17, 2004

The (Im)moral Case Against the War

The Nation used to be one of my favorite magazines before I started having the same problem with it that I used to have (and sometimes still have) with conservatives. What I can’t stand most of all, even more than its paranoia and conspiracy-mongering, is the way most of its writers (with a few noble exceptions) look at the horrible conditions of the wretched of the earth and simply shrug.

Paul Savoy decided to dress up his shrugging in moral and ethical drag. His new piece The Moral Case Against the War is anything but.

There is only one truly serious question about the morality of the war, and that is the question posed more than fifty years ago by French Nobel laureate Albert Camus, looking back on two world wars that had slaughtered more than 70 million people: When do we have the right to kill our fellow human beings or let them be killed? What is needed is a national debate in the presidential election campaign that addresses the most important moral issue of our time.
I can agree with him about that. But that’s about it. I certainly don’t come down on the same side of the question as he does.
[E]ven if as many as 5,000 civilians have been killed by US forces, isn't freedom for 25 million people in Iraq worth the cost of 5,000 lives? Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, argued this cost-benefit analysis in making the moral case for war in the New York Times Magazine before the invasion: "The choice [was] one between two evils, between containing and leaving a tyrant in place and the targeted use of force, which will kill people but free a nation from the tyrant's grip." Ignatieff concluded that killing people was the better choice if the United States was willing "to build freedom, not just for the Iraqis but also for the Palestinians, along with a greater sense of security for Israel."
He does an okay job framing the question. This does get to the heart of it. Then he runs right off the rails.
Viewed in the light of our own moral ideals, as embodied in our constitutional tradition, the right to life is so fundamental that killing the innocent to advance the cause of freedom of electoral choice or any other purpose, however worthy, must be regarded as wrong.
In other words, freedom is not worth fighting for. Our constitutional tradition does not “embody” that notion at all.

You can’t have a war without killing the innocent. It just isn’t possible. We can do our very best to minimize that damage, but still it can never be zero. That, in fact, is Mr. Savoy’s unstated point. Since innocents always die in war, he explicitly states freedom is not worth fighting for under any circumstances because the death of some innocents is morally worse than slavery for everybody.

This is dubious enough in and of itself. The United States would not exist as a country if Mr. Savoy’s “morality” were the prevailing view at the time of the American Revolution. Nor would the slaves have been freed from the shackles of the Confederacy.

He fails, at this point in the piece anyway, to take into account that Saddam Hussein killed more Iraqis by orders of magnitude than the U.S. has or ever will. I know he knows this. He comes right out and acknowledges as much later on in the same article. He apparently thinks - he must think on some level - that it’s morally better if a lot of people die by someone else’s hand than if a few die by ours. This is nothing if not an abrogation of responsibility and a total lack of regard for the well-being of the people in question. The same rationale would tell us to let Slobodan Milosovic put the Muslim population of Europe to the sword. The same rationale excuses our (and everyone else’s) refusal to stop the past genocide in Rwanda and the current one in Sudan. It’s a great and terrible shrug. The post-Holocaust notion of “Never Again” doesn’t even enter in the equation. Did anyone who said “never again” mean a tyrant has to be exactly as bad as Hitler to be worth stopping? No. Even if that’s what was meant, Mr. Savoy still never takes that into account. In his view, genocide can only be resisted by the victims. Never by a well-armed third party.

It’s true that many people are dead in Iraq because of what we did. It’s equally true that a larger number are alive because of what we did. The well-being of Iraqis isn’t even remotely what’s at issue to Mr. Savoy. He only cares that we are morally pure. Tyranny, barbarism, and genocide are fine with him in a lesser-evil sort of way as long as we can sit safe and sound on our side of the ocean and not have to dirty ourselves by messing with it.

Not only is this morally reprehensible, it isn’t even logical. We do not sit safe and sound on this side of the ocean as the terrorism on September 11, preceded by Al Qaeda’s genocidal death warrant, has already shown. The political culture of the Middle East absolutely is our business. Middle Eastern political science topples buildings and kills thousands in our own cities.

Paul Savoy is a September 10th person. He doesn’t understand that we’re war whether we’re happy about it or not.

One of the problems with the September 10th mentality is known to some as the Genovese Syndrome, named after Kitty Genovese who was very slowly knifed to death in full view of her neighbors in New York City. Not one of her neighbors, witnesses all, lifted a finger to stop it or even to call the police. Better not to get involved, or so they thought before their morally repugnant passivism (or should I say pacifism?) shocked and appalled the rest of the country.

We denounce terrorists because when the freedom of self-determination they seek is weighed in the balance against the right to life of innocent people, it is the right to life that our collective conscience has decided should prevail. [Emphasis added.]
Good God. What “freedom” or “self-determination” are the terrorists supposedly seeking? The freedom to slash the faces of unveiled women? To stone adulterers to death? To throw gay people off buildings? To wipe Jews from the face of the Earth? If this is freedom, I’ll take slavery.

Mr. Savoy has stripped that lovely word of all its meaning, reducing it to just another post-modern relativistic construct. Freedom for me is a tyrant for thee. No wonder he doesn’t think it’s something worth fighting for.

This, apparently, is what happens to people who live a rarefied existence in a spoiled complacent country. Maybe he needs to take a holiday in Sudan (or even Cambodia) to see how the other half lives. You know, walk a mile in another’s shoes, get a little sympathy for the downtrodden. It’s amazing I have to say this to a liberal. It was the liberals, after all, who taught it to me.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 17, 2004 8:35 PM
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