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.


  1. Mike S says

    I appreciate your clear presentation and logical arguments. How do you deal with the “ticking time bomb” argument used to justify torture? (I heard Professor Dershowitz use it several times on CSpan2.) Finkelstein’s name-calling is not an argument.



  2. says


    I addressed the ‘ticking time bomb’ issue before in a three part series. The third part is here and it has links to the first two parts so you can read in sequence. The first part deals specifically with a response to Dershowitz’s arguments.

    I also wrote another piece about torture here.

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