Saturday, October 28, 2006


President Bush, The Moral Relativist

President Bush once remarked that he lept into the fray of politics in an attempt to undo the moral relativism of the sixties. In that regard, he has frequently exercised his presidential sneer for what he takes to be sixty-ish situation type ethics. Yet, for all of his absolutist posturing and his penchant for making brash moral judgments, Mr. Bush is fast becoming one of the relativists that he has so roundly and routinely criticized.

Over the last five years, the President has often emphasized, "The world has changed since 9/11." By that he seems to mean that a new set of moral/ political rules has come into effect since the Twin Towers came down. Because we are facing the threat of terrorism, the President has authorized holding people indefinitely without trials, wiretapping without a warrant, and setting up interrogation shops in foreign countries. Last month, he pounded his fist and jabbed the air proclaiming that the US should not be bound by the 57-year old Geneva Convention banning the use of torture.

Remarkably enough, after all the ballyhooing of former torture victim Senator McCain and others, the President won a compromise signED a bill lastTuesday that putatively clarifies the terms of the Geneva ban on torture. Sad to say, many believe that this retroactive legislation is intended to protect the President, US agents, and our armed forces from charges of war crimes.

The implicit suggestion in Bush's argument is that if matters were otherwise, if we were in a regular war against the dependable Nazis or North Koreans, then there would be no need to tweak this sacrosanct international code. But to listen to the President, our present foes are just too dangerous for us to swear off the use of pain as an elixir. In other terms, President Bush seems to believe that, relatively speaking, torture is wrong, but that using electrodes to spark truth-telling is justifiable in certain situations, as long as it doesn't cause "a burn or physical disfigurement of a serious nature (other than cuts, abrasions, or bruises)" -- as though the use of "serious" in this context was any more transparent than the terms of Common Article 3

Many people had a good laugh listening to then President Clinton parse words during the Monica Lewinsky debacle. But it seems that Mr. Bush also has a penchant for term splitting. In presenting his case, the President took issue with the use of the term "outrageous" in the Geneva agreement. "Outrageous?" snickered Bush, "Who's to say what is outrageous?" After signing the Military Commissions Act on Tuesday, the Great Decider will be the one empowered with the wisdom to say what is outrageous.

Someone with a firmer set of convictions, however, would insist that inflicting serious pain on a suspect is torture and that torture is plain wrong, no matter what the circumstances and no matter what good consequences might issue from it.

With a set jaw, the President has certainly shown this firmness on other issues, such as embryonic stem cell research. Even though Mr. Bush acknowledges that this science might help us discover the cure for terrible diseases, he refuses to sanction the creation of new stem cell lines on the grounds that the lives that might be saved would not change the fact that creating life for research purposes remains wrong. With regard to prisoners of our war on terrorism, matters moral are a little more fluid. President Bush might carry himself like the sheriff of moral clarity, but when it comes to moral principles he is a cut and run relativist.

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