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Jewish World Review
March 10, 2009 / 14 Adar 5769
About Those False Choices
One of President Obama's strengths is his mild manner. It tends to give
the impression of reasonableness, and is reinforced by his habit of
presenting strongly ideological moves as mere pragmatism. Rather than
acknowledge that he is choosing sides, he spins tales of transcending
"the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long..."
In reversing his predecessor's executive order regarding embryonic stem
cell research, the president outlined the choice as follows: "In recent
years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering
discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice
between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two
are not inconsistent." You see, there really is no moral quandary worth
considering because "I believe we are called to care for each other and
work to ease human suffering." Everyone is for easing human suffering.
That begs the question: Would the president be in favor of easing human
suffering if it required using the organs of, say, 6-month-old fetuses?
The problem is not that some people are against "sound science" but
rather that science cannot answer questions like "When is human life
worthy of respect and protection?" Those are inherently political
questions that can only be answered by the whole society.
A few sentences later, President Obama himself acknowledged that "sound
science" is not the only consideration. He declared that "we will ensure
that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human
reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our
society, or any society." Come again? What if human cloning could get
paraplegics to walk again or deliver diabetics from a lifetime of
needles? What if the federal government's refusal to fund such research
caused "some of our best scientists (to) leave for other countries that
will sponsor their work"? Apparently there are moral constraints on
science and President Obama stands ready to impose them.
One of President Obama's first official acts was to announce the closing
of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay and to issue a new executive
order on permissible interrogation techniques. "We reject as false the
choice between our safety and our ideals," the president proclaimed in
his inaugural address. Once again, he dismisses a genuine dilemma as a
false choice. There is no conflict between the two because "It is
precisely our ideals that give us the strength and moral high ground to
. deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorism
organizations around the world." Is it? Before 9/11, the U.S. was not
known around the world for subjecting prisoners to harsh questioning.
Did that protect us? Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has offered the
view that tough interrogation succeeded in getting some of the worst
al-Qaida terrorists to talk. "The Abu Zubaydahs, the Khalid Sheikh
Mohammeds, I just can't conceive of any other way, given their
character, given their commitment to what it is they do" he told the
This is not to suggest that stress positions, sleep deprivation, or
waterboarding (which was reportedly used in only three cases) are or are
not torture. But it is possible, reasonable people can agree, that in
certain situations such rough treatment of a detainee might actually be
the more moral choice for example, if half a million people would die
from a nuclear explosive hidden in a large city. And once again, one
senses that Obama himself knows this and simply chooses to de-emphasize
Buried in his statement about interrogations was the promise to create a
committee to consider whether the Army Field Manual techniques are too
limiting "when employed by departments or agencies outside the
military." And when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked
CIA chief Leon Panetta about a ticking-bomb scenario at his confirmation
hearing, Panetta said, "If we had a ticking-bomb situation and,
obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would
not hesitate to go to the President of the United States and request
whatever additional authority I would need."
The White House did not contradict the CIA director, which isn't
surprising. We're beginning to understand the pattern. Wave away serious
moral and or policy quandaries; grandstand about your own superior
morals; and hope no one notices that you are contradicting yourself.
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