When doubt is a moral responsibility

How to respond to bin Laden? Remember that peace won't necessarily save lives -- and war won't either. And don't listen to anyone who says the choices are obvious.

Published October 3, 2001 8:49PM (EDT)

I wonder. Were he alive today, would Karl Marx enjoy the bitter irony that recent events have made of his famous epigram, religion is the opiate of the masses? Terra non grata Afghanistan, is, after all, the world's premier producer and exporter of opium, and its resident terrorists are ruled by religious delusion.

How quaint. Thesis meets antithesis, producing the terrible synthesis: numb zealotry. Who'd have thunk it? The man who made a religion out of politics, and whose ideas made a right mess of the 20th century, was a prophet after all, though perhaps not quite in the way he intended.

Alas, such is the strange alchemy of dialectical materialism: The past cannot predict the future, and never repeats it. How could it, when into the roiling crucible of history, there always drops an unknown quantity? The present is always a mysterious hybrid. Unique and surprising each time. Not what we expected at all.

Which, I suppose, is why these times are so confusing to us. Somehow the trusted guidelines don't apply. We don't quite know what's demanded of us, because we've never faced these particular circumstances before. What's the moral thing to do, we ask ourselves, when we are left with no choice but the lesser of two evils? And despite what the anarcho-pacifists and the schadenfreude intelligentsia (e.g., Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky) will tell you, we are indeed faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. That, or an acquiescence to utter chaos and destruction -- in short, hell. But knowing all this doesn't make the choice any easier, or at least it shouldn't to anyone who still knows how to recognize a moral dilemma.

The pacifists don't see the moral dilemma, because they refuse to take responsibility for the consequences of noninvolvement in this conflict. To do so would be to submit to the doubt and confusion at the heart of the present global struggle. So, instead, to them it's black and white. Violence, they maintain, breeds only violence. But this is manifestly untrue. Violence can bring peace. The converse is also true. Peace can breed violence.

Take the most obvious historical example. We fought the Nazis. We defeated them, and thereby crushed the fascist threat. By killing them, we prevented the deaths and miseries not only of ourselves, but more important, of millions of others around the globe who would have perished and/or suffered egregiously in a Nazi-dominated world. Thus, our violence made for peace. It saved lives.

By contrast, if we had not acted, if we had not fought, we would have had the blood of all the Nazis' next victims on our hands. Our passivity would have abetted the German war machine, and quite possibly enslaved much of the human race. Surely, not to act would have been a sin of omission. To stand by in the name of pacifism and watch others die, while refusing on principle to intervene, is murder by proxy. It is a peace that kills many more than it saves.

Thus peace is not always the moral option -- or, at least, not by any means the obvious one.

In another camp, avoiding the quandary in their own inimitable way, are the ever contrarian leftist intellectuals gleefully clucking like the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. At last America has gotten her long deserved comeuppance. The bombs she has been lobbing so cravenly from afar on foreign soil have finally hit home.

This is a predictable stance, and one that is as flawed in its obtuse absolutism as the current pacifist rhetoric. It is infused through and through with the kind of moral relativism so characteristic of our nihilist postmodernist clerics. At its heart lies their "sophisticated" Nietzschean conviction that good and evil are for lamebrained sissies who have swallowed and been swallowed by the lies of an opportunistic Judeo-Christian morality. They, however, are beyond such sophomoric categories now, and so, to them, nothing is either bad or good but thinking makes it so.

Add to that the leftist intelligentsia's distressingly reductivist tendency to side automatically with the brown people in any conflict, and you have a pleasing paradox wherein no one and everyone is right and wrong, and therefore neither. This is not, mind you, a moral dilemma, but a paradox -- always the intellectual's favorite dessert, because it admits of no solution, and simply hangs there, the narcissist's whirligig, titillating the bored, solipsistic superior-IQ elites. And so the practical question of what we should do to forestall the deaths of more innocent victims gets replaced by the self-satisfied intellectual's static version of "Who's on first?"

But there is something else loathsome at the root of the leftist intelligentsia's decidedly anti-American stance, and it brings us to the choicest of all Marxist ironies. Though it has always pretended to be down with the proletariat, the leftist intelligentsia in this country has always been covertly elitist in the extreme. Hence its reflexive dislike of flag-waving patriotism. (Vide Katha Pollit and Barbara Kingsolver's recent diatribes against displaying the red, white and blue.)

You see, patriotism is for rednecks and burly white cops who shoot unarmed black people, and still use the word "nigger" on a regular basis. Patriotism is for sexist construction workers who spend their lunch hours harassing female passersby, and who ritually beat their wives on Superbowl Sundays, and who wank over the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and tack up the Second Amendment right beneath the gun racks in the cabs of their Chevy pickups. These are the very uneducated people who've never heard of Nietzsche, who fought or have relatives who fought in the war in Vietnam, and who still believe in the infallibility of God and -- -as the flag-burning teacher in Southern California called it -- the United Snakes of America.

Never mind that these cops and firemen and construction workers are the same people who risked their lives and died trying to save trapped and injured strangers at the World Trade Center. They're also the ones waving the flag most proudly from their squad cars and dump trucks and Humvees.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are struggling, however maladroitly, with the tenuous middle ground, knowing that pacifism is a dangerous luxury, and livid anti-Americanism an impotent pose. We're stuck grappling with what might well prove to be our generation's Spanish Civil War.

The only sane choice seems to be the one the Bush administration has apparently made, to side in some way with the Afghan rebels, our modern equivalent of the anarcho-communist militias of 1930s Spain, and the aforementioned lesser of two evils. Like the Spanish communists, the Northern Alliance is a less than savory pack of poorly armed guerrillas with whom we must cooperate in the interests of stopping a nonnegotiable fascistic evil from spreading.

Yet this cannot be undertaken with righteous abandon. By siding with the anti-Taliban forces, whose humanitarian track record is nothing to shout about, we may very well be making the same mistake we made in the 1980s when we supported the then incipient Taliban against the Soviets. We will be cavorting with criminals in order to reach our short-term goals and we should, by no means, be proud of this. The regime we prop up in place of the Taliban may be little better. But what's the reasonable alternative?

Finally, there is the question of method, which the bellicose on the right and the left aren't much grappling with. Certainly putting a bullet through the heads of all locatable terrorists is the most expedient thing, but is it the most humane thing? Or the most diplomatically effective thing? After all, it's possible that we could capture and imprison some of al-Quida's rank and file, and just as effectively remove the threat of further terrorist attacks. True, the Taliban's refusal to hand over bin Laden et al has made invasion unavoidable, but will this make the eventual taking of prisoners impossible? And then there is the possibility of war crimes tribunals, which, granted, would probably devolve into a tangled mess full of all the usual loopholes associated with the presumption of innocence. And yet, if we stand for liberty and justice, mustn't we at least make a stab at due process? Who ever said doing the right thing was easy?

The list of questions is potentially endless, and the right answers aren't conspicuous. And so, we sit and sit, and mull and mull, trying to reconcile moral imperatives with realpolitik. The process is made that much harder by the preponderance of contradictions floating around us just now. Peace is war, and war peace. Devils are saints, and enemies are friends. Such queer reversals are everywhere these days, defying ethics and reason both, making a dreadful and unavoidable conundrum of each undistracted hour. But we must keep on with our thinking and questioning, because now, more than ever, it matters if we care enough to doubt.

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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Osama Bin Laden