on debating dead moral questions

One point that, I hope, runs through a lot of my work is the use and abuse of dead moral questions. In that, I mean the tendency for political types to bring a lot of rhetorical and mental weight to bear on questions that are not politically live, in any meaningful sense. This focus is always an attempt to hide something, always undertaken in service to some other agenda than actually defending the positions which do not require defending.

So take Israel. It’s common for people seeking to silence criticism of Israel to say things like “we need to prevent the destruction of Israel at all costs.” This is a classic dead moral question. Commitment to the military defense of the modern state of Israel is, I contend, literally the single most unanimous issue among American political leadership today. So the question has no actual valence in contemporary American politics. It instead acts only to prevent focus on a question of profound uncertainty: the physical safety and human rights of the Palestinian people. Or take when liberal interventionists insist, in the course of prosecuting their argument that the United States should go to war again and again to save the world’s people, that we must stand ready to prevent another Holocaust. This is another classic dead moral question: there simply is no question that the world will go to war to prevent another Holocaust. Even on the furthest fringes of political radicalism, you will find precious few people who would not dedicate military power to prevent another Holocaust. So saying that we must prevent another Holocaust serves instead to obscure far more important, far more pressing questions, questions of sovereignty and imperialism and human rights and recognizing the limitations of American power.

For weeks, our political class had an orgy of self-righteousness about the terrible way in which North Korea had prevented the movie The Interview from reaching the public. The Interview went on to be seen by millions of people, on their TVs and on their computers and, yes, in movie theaters. And of course it was. North Korea never actually stood in the way of people seeing The Interview, but the situation did, ultimately, stand in the way of deeper, more painful, more important conversations, such as ones about the inherent censorship of the profit motive. (North Korea is in fact one of our most constantly invoked dead moral questions; so many questions about America’s standing in the world today are subsumed beneath the question “is Kim Jong Un a good dude,” a question on which we have literal unanimity.)

That’s what’s happening today in regards to the terrorist attacks in France. We are having a series of loud, impassioned, righteous conversations about questions like “Should people murder?” and “Should we have the right to publish cartoons?” We’re debating, in other words, dead moral questions, and for the same reason we always do: because that debate allows us to ignore the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness. To read the people writing about this attack, this is the fundamental question at hand: were these killings OK? If that were actually a moral question worth asking, then it would provoke disagreement. And yet I see no disagreement. None at all. Please: point me to any piece that endorses these killings that does not come from the looniest fringes of our political order. This Jacobin piece is getting passed around as an example of left-wing illiberalism, and yet in its very first paragraph, it asserts what absolutely everyone else is asserting: that there are no justifications for this, that the attacks are abhorrent, that free speech must be defended. Please, point me in the direction of a defense of these attacks that is anything resembling prominent or empowered. You are all debating an idea that no one at all is advancing.

The question of the price that Muslims will pay for these attacks– that is a live question, the security and rights of the Muslim people is very much uncertain, indeed. If there is anything that this country has stood for in the last 15 years, it is its willingness to sacrifice anything to fight Muslim extremism, and in the process, innocent Muslims. We have invaded multiple Muslim countries, sent secret raids into far more, killed Muslims with drones and bombs, wiretapped Muslims at home and abroad, sent agents to infiltrate their mosques, thrown dozens of them into a prison camp without trial or judicial review, assassinated them without due process, tortured them, and spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives in doing so. Of all the things that you should fear your government will lose the resolve to do, fighting Muslim terrorists should be at the absolute bottom of your list. There is no function that our government has performed more enthusiastically for years. Can any credible person doubt our commitment to fighting Muslim terrorists, in 2015?

Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like “murder is bad” and “free speech is  good.” None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal. In fact, all of them would, if pressed, likely admit that the result will be literally the opposite: that we will become more belligerent against Muslim extremism, not less; that we will become more aggressive in our posture against Islam, not less; that the public mood, already dark towards Islam, will grow only darker. They know all of this. They simply won’t tell you about it.

This is a liar’s conversation, we’re having right now. It’s built on a foundation of unreality. People debating it rail against an outcome that not one of them think is actually going to happen. And they do it for the same reason they always do it, to avoid talking about the rot underneath their feet. I have no time to debate the immorality of murder, and I see no one who disagrees with me on that immorality with whom I could debate. There are real questions that this lurching, violent country should ask itself, and won’t.