/***********************************************/ /* HEADER */

It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Afraid enough to be immoral

Lawrence Wilkinson brought something to my attention, yesterday, that absolutely floored me with its obviousness. That I hadn’t thought of it embarrassed me.

It came up because of a dubious anniversary. It was yesterday “in 1964 that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. A forbearer of the more recent Congressional actions on Iraq, The Tonkin Resolution was a reaction to U.S. Navy reports, via the White House, of a dastardly attack on a US destroyer by a North Vietnamese torpedo boat in the Gulf of Tonkin; the Resolution empowered President Johnson to ‘oppose Communism in Southeast Asia’ in essentially any damn way he pleased. It paved the way for the heavy bombing of North Vietnam in early 1965 and for the introduction of U.S. combat troops in March of that same year. And so began a nearly eight-year war in which over 58,000 U.S. troops died. Only, it turns out, that there virtually certainly was no attack: commanders of the U.S. destroyer and its accompanying ships -- which were assisting South Vietnamese commandos that night in their attacks on North Vietnamese military installations -- could not confirm that their ships had actually been attacked. We might well paraphrase Santayana: ‘We who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”

(Photo shows the destroyer at the heart of the Tonkin incident, the USS Maddox.)

Congress was either duped into, or was complicit in, going to war in Viet Nam on false pretenses. There was no immediate threat to the United States. The war was militarily unwinnable (the US won every major ground engagement, but lost the war). There was no international coalition of support. It undermined America’s standing in the world for twenty years.

What justified initial public support of the action? A pervading fear. It was a fear stirred as much by partisan domestic politics as it was by events in any fact-based reality. It was the fear of the spread of Communism.

That fear was not dissimilar to the culture of fear so pervasive in the United States since 9/11: the fear of terrorism, and the fear of the spread of militant Islam. As widely documented, the Bush administration has at times undeniably fostered that fear. Remember duct tape and plastic sheeting? Pervasive fear provides motivation for swing voters to back all manner of government action their ethics otherwise would not tolerate.

Fear makes us justifiably more conservative. We want to preserve the status quo, and we will take great risks – including sacrificing our own freedom – to protect what we hold most dear.

While I know that people do nutty things when they’re afraid – and the US population has been pretty afraid since 9/11 and it’s backed some pretty nutty things – I’ve been consistently disappointed that the moral tide of the US has never turned and swept aside the follies of war abroad and eroding rights at home. I have long seen both as moral issues as much as they are political, diplomatic or military.

The lack of a wide-spread, morality-based response to Iraq has led many to draw a contrast with Viet Nam. The populace grew weary of Viet Nam in part because it came to be seen as an immoral war being pursued immorally. The majority decreasingly perceived protestors as aberrant. Instead, beginning to see the war as an immoral cancer on the body politic, the protestors became the war’s moral anti-bodies. So why has a similar backlash not taken shape against our actions in Iraq? Where are the demonstrations?

Certainly the conflict in Iraq cannot be claimed morally superior to the folly of Viet Nam, neither in its cause nor its prosecution. There are few morally acceptable justifications for killing, in the first place. The very phrase “the killing of innocents” backhandedly defines our moral judgment concerning those who can justifiably be killed: They must not be innocent; they must be guilty. The facts, however, have revealed the pretense of Iraqi guilt to be a sham: no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction; no link with Al Qaeda and, therefore, no indirect threat from non-existent aid to terrorists.

Further, despite what I’m sure is impeccable professional and humanitarian deportment on the part of the American military, generally, the image of the United States in this war is, whether we like it or not, engraved largely by photographs from Abu Ghraib and news reports from Haditha. Further, it is my personal belief that no amount of civilian “collateral damage” can be morally justified in a conflict that has, in the first place, no just raison d’etre.

These are, of course, cause for outrage. In much of the world, there is outrage. But not in the United States.

I recently read an excellent analysis of why: why there is not outrage at home, and the reason for the stark contrast between this non-reaction and the American people’s response to Viet Nam. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced the original article – mea culpa – but it pointed out one obvious difference and another less obvious one. Both have to do with a lack of sacrifice.

First, during Viet Nam, there was a national draft. That spread the direct suffering of troop sacrifice more evenly across the population. Today, without a draft, it is largely the lower classes – and then, overwhelmingly, black and Hispanic folks – that are fighting the war. Most white, middle-class Americans don’t have close friends or relatives being injured or killed. So, the impact of the war is not intimate. “It ain’t people like me getting killed.”

Secondly, the administration has successfully disconnected the pursuit of the war from even indirect sacrifice. In all other wars, the nation has been asked to sacrifice for the cause. Not for Iraq. In fact, the Bush administration has been pulling off an ingenious trick: retain at least tacit support for the war by inuring the population from having to sacrifice economically. No war bonds. No high taxes. Just a promise of a healthy economy and even tax cuts to go along with vigorous prosecution of the war. The financial price of the war – the mounting federal debt funding it – is simply too big and complex for most voters to engage on.

(So far, events have provided only one threat to this strategy: high gas/petrol prices. Remember, we were all assured at the beginning of the war that invading Iraq would actually stabilize pump prices. Note how politically active Congress has gotten with each new price spike.)

So, the analysis goes, with the two biggest reasons to care about the war – death and taxes – removed, most Americans are successfully not caring about the war.

That’s glib, of course. Most Americans do care a lot about the war. Just not enough to take to the streets and make a moral stand. Because even if the morality of the war is questionable, it’s remote.

All this was on my mind when I read this Boston Globe article on recent research into the relationship between reason, morality and the emotions. While it was long thought that moral judgments are based on subtle reasoning – and, therefore, generally consistent through time – it appears that morality is, in fact, much more subject to our emotional states than previously believed. In other words, we are more or less moral depending on whether we’re in a good mood or a bad one.

It’s a fascinating article. It’s also got nothing to do with the war. What made me think of it was the idea that our moral judgment, if compromised by bad moods, is almost certainly also compromised by fear. So, if I’m afraid, I’m not only more conservative, I may also be less moral.

It was then that it occurred to me what a devastating balance the current administration has struck. Making the nation afraid means people are willing to allow government action they might otherwise find immoral. But shielding the population from personal sacrifice means people are not forced to confront the consequence of the immoral action.

We’re just afraid enough to compromise our morals, and just complacent enough not to do anything about the violation.


Comments on "Afraid enough to be immoral"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (6:52 PM) : 

amen to all of that!!! I think you are the flip side of William F. Buckley...and about that law school , at 4 yrs. of age, you were already silver tongued...oh, yeah, baby! hm


Blogger ThomasMcCay said ... (3:02 AM) : 

A very good article. I've come to similar conclusions regarding why American citizens are being so complacent about the horrors of this neo-con war.

The sacrifices have only been postponed. The phenomenal deficit created by this spend crazy administration, is going to be on the backs of working taxpayers for many years to some. So much for any ideas regarding national health insurance.

I believe that the lack of a military draft is a large factor in the moral complacency we see from the American population. The risk is not shared by most Americans, so they aren't motivated to act.

Then they wonder why the rest of the world has such a low opinion of Americans.


post a comment