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FIELDS: The banality of moral preening

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COMMENTARY:

Evil is never banal. Hanna Arendt was wrong. Evil is fascinating and provocative and focuses the mind. Adolf Eichmann may have been a boring man to know. He may have thought he was merely a bureaucrat following orders, but his acts forever fascinate the human mind in our attempt to understand how he could have done what he did without a conscience, without remorse.

What is banal is moral preening by those who judge others who stand up to evil, who judge those who may have been compromised in their human fallibility to fight evil so that others may enjoy the good (life). What's banal are all those pundits and ideologues on the sidelines who only get their hands dirty when they change ink cartridges on their printers.

What's banal are all those preeners calling for revenge against those acting in good faith, who did what they believed to be the right action at the time in thwarting evil. What's banal are the men and women who enjoy making those who are less than pure in fighting evil look as though they're commensurate with the evildoers themselves. They round up the usual suspects, the cliched villains of Nazi Germany and Bosnia and trot them out for a show trial of their imagination.

Of course, logic requires that these moral purists make distinctions, sort of. "I know it's offensive to compare almost anything to the Nazis," Richard Cohen writes in The Washington Post, as he does just that in a discussion of the Third Reich: "but the Bush-era memos struck me as echoes from the past."

Mark McKeon, who was a prosecutor against the war crimes perpetuated in Bosnia, concedes that the level of our leaders' crimes does not approach the level of the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, but we must punish "the most senior government officials responsible for [our torture] crimes."

The debate about the so-called torture techniques in interrogating enemies is not one of good vs. evil. It's about moral abstraction vs. grim reality. It has moved from saying that "torture is wrong," something with which most people will agree, to seeking revenge against those falsely perceived as moral enemies in our midst.

It's relatively easy to criticize lawyers in this country who take advantage of our free system to sue, but not in making lawyers targets for prosecution because they offered arguments in defense of certain techniques to elicit information at a time when we were extremely afraid of attacks on our country that might murder thousands more through hidden terrorist plots.

The debate has moved away from making pre-emptive laws for the future that forbid using such techniques to seeking revenge against those who in a moment of collective panic thought the techniques they used were legal and necessary to save American lives.

What a difference eight years make.

We forget the agony, the gruesome details of the deaths of the victims in the Twin Towers, all of which had us feeling that "there but for the grace of God go I." We forget our fears at the sound of a plane overhead, our suspicious glances at the "swarthy" man sitting next to us in a crowded theater, sports arena or outdoor concert. We forget how eagerly we embraced the tedious obstacles to our personal freedoms that we confront every time we board an airplane. We forget how appreciative we were of President George W. Bush that we didn't suffer explosions on trains and buses like those in Madrid and London or that no bombs were detonated in our embassies abroad on his watch after Sept. 11, 2001.

Few of us concerned ourselves with how this might have happened. The absence of terror doesn't create political polarities. Like preventive inoculations, which sometimes make us poison our bodies to prevent getting a more potent disease, we don't celebrate the illness we didn't get. But we do appreciate the doctors who administer the vaccine.

In the years following Sept. 11, we grew to have faith in our government "intelligence." We grew to put aside our daily fears because we felt the men in charge were in control. The intelligence community was living up to its assignment. If "mistakes were made," as the passive voice suggests in addressing uncomfortable facts, we stopped making them. They're behind us now.

President Obama was right when he announced to the CIA that he would not punish those who followed "Bush administration guidelines." He was right when he said we would not look back in anger at Bush administration officials who approved of "enhanced interrogation." Mr. Obama said, "This is not the time for retribution," He should stick to it. There's nothing banal about that.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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