The creeping immorality in public discourse

Sometimes I wonder what passes for brains and morals among some of our so-called ‘respected’ journalists. Take Ted Koppel, former host of ABC’s Nightline and now an analyst for NPR. In a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, he starts by taking a fairly sensible stand, that any sanctions imposed against Iran can be easily subverted and that the US does not have a realistic chance of preventing that country from obtaining nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so. Koppel says “What, then, can the United States do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology? Little or nothing. Washington should instead bow to the inevitable.” He continues: “If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it.”

But it turns out that this seemingly reasonable acknowledgment of reality is merely the foundation for suggesting something truly outrageous:

But this should also be made clear to Tehran: If a dirty bomb explodes in Milwaukee, or some other nuclear device detonates in Baltimore or Wichita, if Israel or Egypt or Saudi Arabia should fall victim to a nuclear “accident,” Iran should understand that the U.S. government will not search around for the perpetrator. The return address will be predetermined, and it will be somewhere in Iran.

Pause for a moment and consider the horror of what he is proposing. If a nuclear weapon explodes anywhere in the US or a country that is considered an ally of the US, then the US should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, without any attempt to find out who the guilty party is. Evidence doesn’t matter. Actual guilt doesn’t matter. All that matters to him is that hundreds of thousands of people be killed and maimed, and residual radiation effects lasting for generations be released in order to satisfy his desire to lash out.

Apart from the blatant immorality of the suggestion, surely the adverse implications of such a stated US policy are obvious? It gives a free hand to anyone to carry out an attack, knowing that they will get off scot-free since Iran will bear the retaliation. Such a policy, rather than deterring an attack, actually encourages one.

To see the implications, suppose that someone who feels threatened by an opponent hires a private security team. Suppose that this team announces that if the person they are protecting is killed, they will shoot and kill the pre-identified opponent without bothering to do any investigation. The result of this policy is that rather than reducing the danger to the protected person, it is actually increased because every other person who wishes to see him or her dead now has a free hand to act, knowing that retribution will be delivered elsewhere.

So from where did Koppel get this brilliant brainwave, that sounds like something out of a gangster film? From an actual gangster film, The Godfather! He says that this is the message the US should give the leaders of Iran:

“You [i.e. the Iranians] insist on having nuclear weapons,” we should say. “Go ahead. It’s a terrible idea, but we can’t stop you. We would, however, like your leaders to view the enclosed DVD of ‘The Godfather.’ Please pay particular attention to the scene in which Don Corleone makes grudging peace with a man – the head of a rival crime family – who ordered the killing of his oldest son.”
In that scene, Don Corleone says, “I forgo my vengeance for my dead son, for the common good. But I have selfish reasons.” The welfare of his youngest son, Michael, is on his mind.
“I am a superstitious man,” he continues. “And so if some unlucky accident should befall my youngest son, if some police officer should accidentally shoot him, or if he should hang himself in his cell, or if my son is struck by a bolt of lightening, then I will blame some of the people here. That I could never forgive.”

That is by no means the only example of establishment types seemingly becoming unhinged by how badly their various wars are going. Recently Glenn Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and a popular blogger known as Instapundit, made another outrageous suggestion that the US should not invade Iran or try diplomacy with that country and instead “We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and iranian atomic scientists.”

Imagine that, a professor of law casually advocating the murder of civilians in another country.

Paul C. Campos, another professor of law at the University of Colorado, wrote an op-ed pointing out the enormity of this suggestion, and that what was being suggested was unequivocally a war crime.

How does a law professor, of all people, justify advocating murder? “I think it’s perfectly fine to kill people who are working on atomic bombs for countries – like Iran – that have already said that they want to use those bombs against America and its allies, and I think that those who feel otherwise are idiots, and in absolutely no position to strike moral poses,” Reynolds says.

Now this kind of statement involves certain time-tested rhetorical techniques. First, make a provocative claim that happens to be false. In fact, no Iranian government official has ever said Iran wants to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Then use this claim to defend actions, such as murdering civilians, which would remain immoral and illegal even if the claim happened to be true. Finally, condemn those who object to using lies to justify murder as “idiots,” who don’t understand the need to take strong and ruthless action when defending the fatherland from its enemies.

Upon being called to account, Reynolds, in trying to defend himself, managed to dig himself even deeper into a hole. The fascinating back and forth can be read here and some good commentary can also be seen here.

In a long and detailed essay, Norman Finkelstein takes another academic Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to task for his willingness to provide rationales for actions that would be considered horrendous crimes if done by people he disapproves of. Finkelstein says at the end:

After all the hard-won gains of civilization, who would want to live in a world that once again legally sanctioned torture, collective punishment, assassinations and mass murder? As Dershowitz descends into barbarism, it remains a hopeful sign that few seem inclined to join him.

I have written many times before, but it bears repeating again, that war does not simply bring death and destruction to those immediately involved. It also makes barbarians of us all. It makes people think of the immoral as necessary and evil acts as desirable.

How relations with Iran were sabotaged

The surprising statement by Condoleeza Rice yesterday that the US was reversing course on its previously adamant insistence against having talks with Iran and Syria, and was willing to attend six-party talks next month hosted by Iraq that will include both countries, is being hailed as a welcome sign of change by the Bush administration to try diplomacy instead of war. I wish I could feel as hopeful but I have become deeply cynical of the motives of this administration.

My skepticism is because there are reasons why this could be just a feint. Some members of Congress, alarmed by the war-like rhetoric coming out of the White House, have introduced a resolution expressly prohibiting an attack on Iran without their explicit approval. The suggestion of talks with Iran may be aimed at defusing those moves. Or it may be that the Bush administration thinks that before it initiates an air assault on Iran, it needs to show that it tried diplomacy and failed, and these talks are meant to suggest that they tried everything.

Whatever the reason behind this abrupt switch, this marks the latest shift of a turbulent relationship between the US and Iran. The February 19, 2007 issue of Newsweek has an informative article by Michael Hirsch and Maziar Bahari on how the US relationship with Iran has see-sawed. It had been clear for some time that Iran had sought closer ties with the US, after the low-point caused by the student takeover of the US embassy in 1979. Perhaps the best chance came at improving relations after the events of 9/11. Iran had arrested members of al Qaeda in that country and an Iranian official said:

“We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were interested in peace,” says Adeli. To his relief, Iran’s top official, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, quickly agreed. “The Supreme Leader was deeply suspicious of the American government,” says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. “But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America.”

Iran was opposed to the Taliban and thus did not oppose the American invasion of Afghanistan and even offered $500 million dollars (twice what the US was offering) in reconstruction aid for the country. They also worked with the US in November and December of 2001 in setting up the post-Taliban Afghan government structure.

But that was the high point of the collaboration and things fell apart soon after that. The trigger for the decline was Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002 that included the infamous ‘axis of evil’ phrase. Michael Gerson, Bush’s speechwriter at the time, said that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq but did not want to single out Iraq alone in his 2002 speech as that would make things too obvious. So they looked for other countries to include in the speech to camouflage their true intent and Condoleeza Rice suggested that North Korea and Iran be added. This labeling stunned the Iranians, completely discrediting those in the Iranian government who were pushing for closer ties with the US, and confirming the view of the chief Iranian cleric Ali Khamenei that the US simply could not be trusted. Relations never recovered after that.

The Newsweek article implies that this feint strategy to include Iran in the axis of evil was purely for domestic public relations purposes that had unintended and disastrous foreign policy consequences but I find that hard to believe. The neoconservative clique that has such a stranglehold on the Bush administration has always wanted to attack Iran and they must have been concerned at the rapprochement between the two countries. I suspect they were instrumental, through Rice, in including Iran, knowing that it would completely sour relations and increase the chances of hostilities.

But even after this there was a glimmer of hope when, after the 2003 attack on Iraq, Iran sent a fax to the US State Department offering talks on a wide range of issues. I wrote about this sometime ago but the actual fax is now available. Iran probably felt vulnerable because of the swift sweep of US forces into Iraq and thus offered to make concessions on almost everything, including its nuclear program. Condoleeza Rice now says that she cannot remember seeing the fax, an extraordinary admission about such an important development. It frankly seems far-fetched that Rice would not be aware of such a thing. One can only conclude that this administration, or at least key people in it, had decided that they were going to war with Iran and wanted to have nothing to do with anything that might deflect them from that course.

But this was another squandered opportunity, confirming to the Iranians that the US was not interested in improving relations.

I hope I am wrong in my cynicism about the latest warming trend, and that there will genuinely be a move back from the brink of another war and towards a better relationship between the US and Iran.

POST SCRIPT: The dark world of Dick Cheney

It used to be thought that Dick Cheney was the “grown-up” in this administration, there to provide gravitas and advise the inexperienced Bush. What has actually emerged is that Cheney is a man of appallingly bad judgment, almost paranoid in his fears about the threats to the US, and the most belligerent advocate for the neoconservative agenda of more and wider wars. It is suggested that it is no accident that the latest diplomatic overture by the US towards Iran occurred when he was out of the country and that on his return he might try and scuttle it.

There is now a growing awareness that Cheney is a dangerous and reckless man, who is willing to disregard evidence and say anything to further his agenda. Matthew Yglesias argues that Cheney has become both a national joke and a national nightmare, “a man whose track record of dishonesty, catastrophically poor judgments, and world-historical stubbornness makes the rest of the Bush administration look reasonable.” And Josh Marshall adds that “outside of the hardcore of Bush dead-enders, people know he’s at best an incompetent fool.”

This telling cartoon suggests that more and more people are coming round to the kind of view.