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Jewish World Review
May 28, 2009
5 Sivan 5769
An appeal to survival ethics
Washington is a company town, and what the company makes best is
politics and policy. Sometimes the politics is "unprecedented," as certain
historians called the duel between President Obama and former Vice President
Obama and Cheney argued in dueling speeches over how best to
keep the country safe from terrorists and about Obama's continuing campaign
against his predecessor. But at root was a philosophical discussion about
who we are as a nation, and how the nation can be true to both the rule of
law and to the survival of the country. What should the people know about
the way the country is kept safe, and when should the people know it?
Predictably, the dueling arguments were quickly melted down by
McMedia into glib nuggets of distorted facts, misinformation, moral preening
and pious pretense that merely reinforced everyone's established opinions
and positions. The ex-veep was derided as the Darth Vader of the Bush
administration, but the president still won't release the evidence that
Cheney says validates his defense of the interrogation techniques at
Guantanamo as "legal, essential, justified, successful."
An Obama aide tells The Washington Post that the president "gets
frustrated when arguments get dumbed down," because he wants to lay out a
comprehensive vision about what he wants to do with the Guantanamo
prisoners. But the president contributes to the dumbing-down and offers no
assurance that he understands the manipulative nature of the Guantanamo
scoundrels, or the reasons why nobody, Democrat or Republican, wants them
released in his neighborhood.
The Pentagon did offer this week a summary of a study that
reveals that 74 onetime residents who have been released from the military
prison at Guantanamo -- one in seven of those freed -- returned to violent
careers in terrorism. The list includes men accused or convicted of
terrorist offenses in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia,
Turkey and Russia. These are men who never formed the habits of decency
fundamental to civilized society, violent combatants still at war against
the United States.
Who can blame the friendly countries that refuse to relieve us
of the grim task of dealing with them? But deal with them we must, and the
public is entitled to know exactly what Cheney meant when he said the
comprehensive strategy "has worked" and has been crucial to keeping 300
million Americans safe since 9-11.
We can have that philosophical discussion of ethics and who we
are if we keep in mind that survival comes first. On the very day that the
president and the ex-veep dueled, Leon Kass, a professor of the humanities
and the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, cut to the
ethical core in the 38th annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the
National Endowment for the Humanities, at a former movie theater within
sight of the White House.
Kass spoke to the issues of human distinctiveness and dignity
that underlie those identifying values, offering arguments that the Founding
Fathers would certainly have recognized as seminal to the complexity of the
American experiment. He speaks to the political process that is the be all
and end all in Washington, but accompanied by the philosophical reflections
crucial to engaging the Washington wonkery that often passes for considered
"For most Americans, ethical matters are usually discussed
either in utilitarian terms of weighing competing goods or balancing
benefits and harms," he said, "looking to the greatest good for the greatest
number, or in the moralist terms of rules, rights and duties, 'thou shalts'
and 'thou shalt nots.'" The focus must be on the larger picture before
anyone can condemn or correct policy.
The language is lofty and above the fray in the war against the
terrorists who would kill us, but the words appeal to that ethical core
derived from knowledge of the best that has been said and thought by those
who have gone before, "not because they are old and not because they are
ours, but because they might help us discover vital truths that we would
otherwise not see on our own."
He offers no judgments on the competing moral claims of either
Obama or Cheney, but identifies the human dilemmas he first examined as a
bioethicist. The good citizen, being human, must reflect deeply on how to
find cures for disease, at the same time paying homage and respect to life
itself, where the evils to avoid are thoroughly intertwined with the good
the prudent citizen ardently pursues. Nothing glib about that.
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