In one of his better moments last year, President Bush clearly articulated his ethical position on embryonic stem cell research, the principles and evidence his judgment was based on and a considered review of moral stances other than his own. We could use such clarity now, as the president mounts his campaign to justify first-strike military action, apparently against Iraq, but it doesn’t seem likely to occur. Perhaps Bush needs an ethical advisor on warfare with the stature and insight of a Leon Kass, who probably ghostwrote the stem-cell presentation.
In his recent commencement address to the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the president did, to be sure, speak in ethical tones. After reminding the cadets that the cold war doctrines of containment and deterrence had required moral clarity as essential to victory, he said that our present fight against evil and deluded men demanded new thinking.
Different circumstances require different methods but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time and in every place. His appeal to the universal application of ethical standards was echoed in the claim that we wish for others only what we wish for ourselves: safety from violence, the rewards of liberty and the hope for a better life.
Aside from the quarrels that evil men might have with Bush’s own interpretation of violence, liberty and the good life, what is puzzling here is whether the president is willing to have his enemies operate out of the same principles he appeals to, especially the principle of pre-emptive attack.
Our security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and our lives.
Now, substitute Palestinians or Iraqis for Americans in the sentence above and put it in the mouth of Arafat or Saddam Hussein. Do the Palestinians have a right to pre-emptive strikes if they think their liberty has been threatened and their lives rendered expendable? Is it possible that the people of Iraq, according to their best judgments, think their freedom and their very existence are at risk because of the United States?
There has been talk now for months of a country preparing itself to invade another country. Iraq, you might recall, is the threatened country and the United States is the threat. Are we to believe, then, that president Bush has provided the moral justification for Iraq making a pre-emptive strike against us? It seems that the operative policy of Israel is that it can invade any part of Palestine at any time as its response to the horrific suicide bombings. Would a Palestinian, using Bush’s logic, propose pre-emptive strikes against us, Israel’s staunchest support?
Ah, but the evil and deluded men of Sept. 11 and the Palestinian terrorists target civilians, a fact that distinguishes us morally from their iniquity. Well, one might suspect that our enemies do not believe the distinction holds. After all, as Ramzi Yousef, the incarcerated mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack, reminded us, it was America that firebombed the citizens of Tokyo and used nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We wish for others what we wish for ourselves. Are we then to permit other nations what we have permitted our own?
If we launch a pre-emptive war on Iraq and winwhatever that might meanwhat will we have done? Legitimized pre-emptive strikes, the over-throw of governments and moral exceptionalism for anyone having the means to inflict terror. It is not our infrastructure that has been destroyed by bombings; it is not our homes that have been bulldozed; it is not our land that has been invaded and occupied. And yet we will have done something that we deem outrageous when perpetrated by people who have suffered those very degradations.
We will have Palestinized the world and called it peace.
Let there be no doubt. We are in terrible straits. Paranoia can easily become a way of life when you see two mighty buildings with thousands of occupants dissolve into dust. It must be both heroic and horrific to be a Jew in Israel, where 90 percent of its people expect that they or a family member will be extinguished by a mad bomber. It must be frightening to be a Jew even in Europe, where anti-Semitism surges once again. It must be awful to be a Muslim and be a suspect because of that very fact. And it is distressing, to say the very least, to contemplate a dividing and hardening of the Judeo-Christian world in opposition to the Islamic world. A Hundred Years War would become imaginable again.
And that is why we must try other means than the justification of further violence. In the president’s address to the West Point graduates he himself suggested as much. We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace by replacing poverty, repression and resentment around the world with hope of a better day.
This will not be done, however, if we do not give at least the same amount of vigilance, time and money to the works of peace as we do to the rumors and plans for further war.