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The Return of Moral Equivalence By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 26, 2001


LIKE SQUIRRELS climbing from their holes after a long hibernation, the peaceniks are back. They’re scurrying about on the nation’s college campuses and in its big cities, digging up some old chestnuts they buried long ago, like "give peace a chance" or "1-2-3-4 we don’t want no racist war."

For the Left, this is very exciting. "In growing numbers," John Nichols enthuses in The Nation, "a new peace movement" is emerging. It has roots in "every region of the United States," but it’s strongest in "traditional hotbeds of antiwar activism such as Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and the Bay Area."

For leftists, ever since their side lost the Cold War, it’s been a sad, lonely, and quiet time. Sure, there was that last-minute burst of energy protesting the Gulf War, but that was ten years ago. Since then, there has been no enemy to whom they could provide aid and comfort, no good opportunities to decry imperialism or condemn the pigs. Outside of the occasional riot at an IMF or WTO conference, the times have been a’ borin’ for professional protesters.

All it took to wake them up from their nap was a single day of lethal, evil terror, and the prospect that America might actually retaliate against itor worse yet, seek to obliterate the entire movement that brought it about. And then they returned in full force, with their old-time favorite rhetorical device: moral equivalence.

Moral equivalence, William F. Buckley Jr. once observed, is arguing that there’s no difference between pushing "an old lady into the way of an incoming bus" and pushing "an old lady out of the way of an incoming bus," because either way, you’re pushing old ladies around. During the Cold War, moral equivalence was the left’s strategy for rationalizing away Communism’s many sins. America had no business objecting to the Evil Empire, leftists argued, because America had its own skeletons.

The Cuban missile crisis? Well, we have missiles in Europe. Stalinist purges and a state-sponsored famine that killed tens of millions of peasants? That’s just Moscow’s version of McCarthyism. The Soviet invasion and subjugation of Afghanistan? Small potatoes compared to America’s support for the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua.

Never mind that McCarthy’s haranguing people before a Senate committee was hardly the same thing as brutally murdering them in a gulag, or that helping a nation to overthrow a tyranny is very different from imposing one on it. Moral equivalence is rooted in moral stupiditythe inability or refusal to make a distinction between the genuinely good, the merely unpleasant, and the patently evil.

The moral equivalence practiced by the cottage industry of anti-war protesters that’s resurfaced in the last two weeks is more subtle. It usually takes the form of a question, like that asked by a 30-year-old Berkeley grad student who was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. "What has the U.S. done to make so many people around the world so angry at us?"

The left’s answer is a list of U.S. foreign policies: America’s consistent support of Israel, its military bases in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf War, ongoing sanctions against Iraq, plus sundry others. Such offenses, the peaceniks insist, don’t actually justify terrorism, but they explain it; they put it in the appropriate historical context. If America weren’t so unbearably oppressive, its "despair-driven, desperate" adversaries, to use the language of a Nation editorial, wouldn’t be compelled to lash out in this way. We have no business going to war, because we really brought this problem upon ourselves.

It’s the same old moral stupidity.

Even if it were only anger over American foreign policy that drives Islamic radicals to kill Americans (it’s not), the U.S response to the Sept. 11 attacks should be no different than the comprehensive retaliation that’s being planned. Timothy McVeigh had every reason in the world to be angry about the U.S. government’s handling of Waco, but his "despair-driven, desperate" condition didn’t mitigate his moral culpability, or shift it in part onto the U.S. government. Nor did it spare him from the swift administration of justice.

When leftists cite their litany of American abuses in the Middle East, what they’re really saying is that somehow, in total, those policies are morally equivalentor at least morally comparableto hijacking American jetliners and deliberately crashing them into highly populated office buildings. As The Nation put it, "the malign influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in the dark with the suicide bombers."

By this logic, targeting innocent civilians is an offense roughly on par with defending the Middle East’s lone democracy, maintaining bases in a Muslim country with that government’s approval, liberating one Arab nation from the occupation of another, or using sanctions to thwart a tyrant’s unchecked nuclear-weapons program.

Moral stupidity, indeed.

America is not blameless; no country is. There should be a clear moral distinction between a country that occasionally falls horrendously short of its lofty ideals and a cultish philosophy than consistently engages in unadulterated evil for its own sake. It is that clear to nine out of ten Americansjust not the remaining few who live on college campuses or in places like Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and the Bay Area.


Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.


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