Crossroads: America's Moral Dilemma genre: Hip-Gnosis & Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation
The concept of morality is a complex topic that elicits passion and consternation as people of differing beliefs attempt to validate their own particular versions. I've always found it a little odd that God would only provide us with Ten Commandments when it should have been obvious that we would need an abundance of guidance and far more detail if we were to ever be able to reach some mutual consensus. Perhaps that is a factor in my skepticism regarding the Bible as the actual word of God.
I've long wondered what would motivate a God to speak definitively to a select number of people at only one defined period in history...and never have returned to do it again. Further, if someone were to assert that God had spoken directly to them in this day and age, they would likely be determined mentally incompetent...yet we cling to beliefs that cannot be verified and that were reinterpreted time and again over centuries of time. Unfortunately, we cannot definitely resolve any of these conundrums so we struggle to define our morality each day through the decisions and the actions we exhibit.
When I attempt to discern morality, I usually look for consistency...an issue I've previously discussed here at Thought Theater. The premise of my argument is that the application of morality should remain consistent across all elements of an individual’s life in order for it to be considered more than the rhetoric of what I might characterize as politics...the means by which we negotiate to impose the "truths" we hold upon others within society. All too often I find the morality ("truths") of many whom I encounter to be inconsistent and that leads me to doubt the sincerity of their beliefs. While none of us holds a monopoly on “truth", we can nonetheless consistently live the “truths" we embrace. Perhaps that is the best we humans can achieve?
Michael Kinsley has an interesting article in the Washington Post that touches on this means of evaluating morality in the context of our President and his politics. Let me begin with an important caveat...we all have inconsistencies in our beliefs ("truths") and that doesn't necessarily invalidate them or our sincerity. Nonetheless, it does raise questions about the degree to which we have vetted those beliefs as well as the propensity we may have to ignore our own contradictions. Kinsley's article opens the discussion of inconsistencies found within the President's "truths" that merits further analysis and expansion.
It was, I believe, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) who first made the excellent, bitter and terribly unfair joke about conservatives who believe in a right to life that begins at conception and ends at birth.
This joke has been adapted for use against various Republican politicians ever since. In the case of President Bush, though, it appears to be literally true.
Bush, as we know, believes deeply and earnestly that human life begins at conception. Even tiny embryos composed of a half-dozen microscopic cells, he thinks, have the same right to life as you and I do. That is why he cannot bring himself to allow federal funding for research on new lines of embryonic stem cells or even for other projects in labs where stem cell research is going on. Even though these embryos are obtained from fertility clinics, where they would otherwise be destroyed anyway, and even though he appears to have no objection to the fertility clinics themselves, where these same embryos are manufactured and destroyed by the thousands -- nevertheless, the much smaller number of embryos needed and destroyed in the process of developing cures for diseases such as Parkinson's are, in effect, tiny little children whose use in this way constitutes killing a human being and therefore is intolerable.
But President Bush does not believe that the deaths of all little children as a result of U.S. policy are, in effect, murder. He thinks that some, while very unfortunate, are also inevitable and essential.
You know who I mean. Close to 50,000 Iraqi civilians have died so far as a direct result of our invasion and occupation of their country, in order to liberate them. The numbers are increasing as the country slides into chaos: more than 6,500 in July and August alone.
Bush is right, of course, that the inevitable loss of innocent life in wartime cannot be a reason not to go to war or a reason not to fight that war in a way intended to win. Eggs, omelets and all that. "Collateral damage" should be a consideration weighed in the balance. But there is no formula to determine when you have the balance right. It does seem to me that both our wars in Iraq were started and conducted with insufficient consideration for the cost in innocent blood. Callousness, naivete and isolation -- isolation of the decision makers from democratic accountability and isolation of citizens from the consequences, or even the awareness, of what is being done in their name -- all have played a role. I don't see anything coming out of this war that is worth 50,000 innocent lives, although a case can be made, I guess.
But it is hard -- indeed, I would say it is impossible -- to reconcile Bush's absolutism over allegedly human life when it is a clump of unknowing, unfeeling cells with his sophisticated, if not cavalier, attitude toward the loss of innocent human life when it is children and adults in Iraq.
Kinsley’s point is well taken (and one that I am inclined to agree with) and while I could elaborate at length on his particular focus, I want to use the premise he raises to pivot to another important issue. In light of the passage of legislation related to the treatment of detainees, both in terms of their physical and psychological well being and in terms of the legal rights they will be afforded, I can't help but expand upon Kinsley's argument. More importantly, the argument must be moved beyond the President and those who voted to enact this new legislation...we must look at the consistency and the morality of the society that elected those who hold these positions of power.
This is a difficult topic...one that kindles intense passion. Recently, the dialogue has deteriorated into an evaluation of the patriotism of those opposed to the new legislation; specifically aimed at the Democratic Party. Frankly, anyone that doubts the patriotism of a fellow American is actually engaging in the dismantling of the social contract that makes us Americans. Are there individuals who reside in the U.S. who are unpatriotic? Of course they exist. Can they be identified by the political party with which they affiliate? Absolutely not. Is the issue of Iraq and fighting the war on terrorism simply a matter of patriotism? That may well depend upon one's interpretation of what it is that we are actually defending as patriots.
Here's the problem. The United States was attacked on 9/11 and since that time there is no doubt that a number of individuals and organizations and even countries would like to inflict more harm on America. The President stridently asserts that these combatants seek to destroy our way of life and that they view freedom and liberty as obstacles to their goal of imposing their own extremist religious and political views. Generally speaking, I agree that they view our way of life as a threat to their beliefs. I also agree that their election to randomly kill the innocent is inexcusable.
The dilemma we face today is how to best confront the threat these people present. It is my impression that the overwhelming majority of Americans believe we have the right to pursue those who have harmed us as well as those who may desire to harm us. I also believe that most Americans viewed the invasion of Afghanistan, at the time it occurred, as justified and that they continue to do so today. I conclude that position remains constant because it is also consistent with the morals ("truths") we possess.
Regarding Iraq, it is my assumption that a majority of American's favored the invasion...but that they did so upon the information that was provided to them at the time...that being that Sadaam Hussein had WMD's and, given his dislike of the United States, he may well be open to providing weaponry to those who sought to harm us. Again, while perhaps not as clear in terms of our values, most American's felt our decision to invade Iraq met a necessary threshold. If we stop the analysis here, there is little doubt as to the basis of our morality and how most Americans believe it should be reasonably and consistently applied. However, the events subsequent to this juncture require a far different analysis...and a much less favorable conclusion.
Let me begin with an observation and follow with some relevant explanation. The consistent opposition to the war in Iraq, coupled with the belief that it is being mishandled, is a function of the prevailing moral integrity of the average American. Additionally, most Americans feel we have some obligation to achieve an outcome that serves the interests of the U.S. and the people of Iraq...even if we have angered the Iraqi population by our actions. That too is demonstrative of our moral compass.
Where Americans begin to diverge is in determining what actions we should employ to both protect us from harm and in how to treat those who may be guilty of intending or inflicting harm. I'll offer the observation of my uncle, who served on the front lines in WWII, to introduce the dilemma we face. He spoke about the decisions made by desperate people in desperate situations and he argued that only a select few will honor their values when confronted with the decision to be a saint or a sinner. He went on to say that the problem with humanity is that we have failed to acknowledge that we are unable or unwilling to make the moral decision when confronted with the fear of danger or death...and therefore we should avoid the circumstances that lead us to that dangerous precipice. His theory was simply the result of observing the inconsistency of humanity at its worst in times of war.
As I attempt to bring his theory forward to our current situation, it is necessary to draw an important distinction between our actions then and our actions and intentions now. Out of the carnage and devastation of WWII arose the Geneva Conventions...a reaction to the very construct my uncle elucidated...that we humans are prone to inhumanity and that it was essential to define the humanity we would honor even during the times we were unable to find common resolve. It was a call for some application of civility even in our darkest moments of conflict.
In our acceptance of the Geneva Conventions, we not only demonstrated our commitment to humanity, we honored the principles and values upon which our nation was founded...and in so doing we led the world towards civility by example...at a time when we could have sought retribution and retaliation. In so doing, we led the world out of darkness and we became a beacon for freedom and for justice and provided us with more might than all of the weapons we possessed. By applying our morality with consistency, we provided hope to the oppressed as well as the oppressors that freedom and justice served by all is freedom and justice received by all.
We stand again at a crossroads. We can succumb to fear and choose a path that not only violates our moral construct but serves to destroy the very foundations upon which this nation was built. If we make the wrong decisions, we will also no longer be defending the values that we purport to honor…we will no longer be patriots because a patriot only exists if the nation he supports still exists. If we give up our values in order to preserve our way of life, we have chosen self-defeat. One can never suspend one’s values in order to defend them. To do so is to have no values.
Lastly, should we continue our inclinations to erode our moral fabric, we can no longer act with morality…and should that happen, we will not only have met our enemies…we have joined them in fostering our demise. In choosing to honor the efforts of my uncle and the many others who have sacrificed so that we could continue this way of life, I am staking a claim to patriotism and I unequivocally reject the actions of those who are blinded by fear such that they would exchange our values for a false sense of security…thereby enabling the very defeat our adversaries seek to inflict.
Today America is being called upon to lead by example. Should we fail to do so with the courage of our convictions and the commitment to honor those convictions in the face of adversity; we will have ceded our country and our right to lead…at which time the choice to be a patriot will have been precluded. Democracy grows when democracy’s practiced. Dying for democracy can only happen if democracy lives. To deny democracy in order to preserve it is to dishonor those brave enough to defend it.
Mr. President, will you be a patriot and lead this country or will you abrogate the efforts of the countless patriots that served her well? The fate of America hangs in the balance.