Saturday, June 19, 2004

Bush's reaction to the Johnson beheading

I will attempt to clarify for myself what seems so wrong with Bush's response to the beheading of Paul Johnson. Here is what he is quoted as saying.

"The murder of Paul shows the evil nature of the enemy we face. These are barbaric people. There's no justification whatsoever for his murder. And yet they killed him in cold blood."

I guess there are a number of problems.

  1. One has to do with Bush's framing of the issue in terms of evil. In Bush's eyes , the beheading was not just an immoral act; it was an evil act, committed by evil people--people who are not only evil (and barbaric as well), but our enemy to boot.

    There is a major difference between condemning an act as immoral and condemning the people who did it as evil.

    The terms evil, evil nature, enemy, and barbaric clearly demonize the killers. It's the same sort of thing as using the terms axis of evil and evil empire. It establishes an absolutistic good-vs-evil view of the world, with no possibility of mutual understanding or accommodation. We are human; they are not.

    I suppose it's unreasonable to expect Bush to ask himself such a question, but why, I wonder, does Bush suppose Johnson's killers did what they did. Does he think they were simply carrying out their destiny as evil beings? Does he think they were psychopaths or sociopaths? What did he think was going on in their heads (and even in their hearts) when they did the deed? Is he even willing to consider the possibility that they have hearts?

    This is not to say that whatever was going on in their heads and hearts is justification for what they did. But it is to say that they are not simply non-human devils. Something was driving them, and it is important for us not to forget that.

    Bush claims to be a Christian. As I understand it, it is fundamental to most Christian sects that anyone can be saved. Does Bush agree? Can people with an evil nature be saved? How would one approach doing that? I doubt that the best first step is to pin a label of evil on the person you are trying to save.

  2. Then there is the line about justification. It suggests that the same act would have been ok in Bush's mind had there been justification. At least he is consistent. Since Bush is a believer in capital punishment, he can't honestly be critical simply of killing in cold blood. After all, that's what capital punishment is: killing someone in cold blood.

    Of course, Bush is not known for his intellectual honesty and consistency. But like most of us, he probably does want to avoid cognitive dissonance. So for his own peace of mind, he has to distinguish between acceptable cold-blooded killings and unacceptable cold-blooded killings.

    But in acknowledging that he does believe that some cold-blooded killings are acceptable, the issue shifts from evil to justification. (Clearly Bush is not aware of having made this shift, though.)

    Did Johnson's killers have justification? They thought so. Johnson worked on Apache helicopters. The killers issued the following statement.

    "Let him taste something of what Muslims have long tasted from Apache helicopter fire and missiles."

    Again, this does not justify the killing--at least as far as I am concerned. But it does show that the killers knew what they were doing and had thought about it. They believed they were justified in their acts.

  3. The line about the killing having been done in cold blood raises additional questions. Where was Bush's outrage at the way we treated some of our prisoners? Those acts were also done in cold blood. I'm not saying that the two are comparable. Murder is the not the same as abuse. But the cold-bloodedness aspect is the same. Bush has not talked about the perpetrators of the abuse as evil. Some prisoners have apparently been killed. How does Bush distinguish one cold-blooded murder from another?

The point of all this is simply that by expressing such a warped view of the world, Bush is making it much more difficult for the American people to understand what is going on. That may be his intent. Or more likely, he himself doesn't have a clue about what is going on in his own mind.


Anonymous said...

A President's job is to lead the mass of people he represents towards the goals he deems worthy of being goals. His job, when addressing the nation via mass media at time of war, is not to have an complex intellectual discussion with a tiny minority of academics.

The Mass of people in the U.S. are generally quite ignorant, especially of the semantic and philosophical of the issues you mentioned. The masses respond better to images of "Good" and "Evil" and such. If you support the President's goals (and I am not saying that I do or do not), then you would recognize and appreciate verbiage such as this that motivates the public to support those goals as well.

It is very easy for an academic to poke fun and criticize the speeches of any & every major public leader. A major public leader who spoke via mass media at the philospohical level you described would simply not be an effective or desirable public leader. A leader that acts like an academic would be a fool and a failure, quite frankly.

Blue said...

Thanks for your comment.

Even if we were to agree that "A President's job is to lead the mass of people he represents towards the goals he deems worthy," i would disagree with the notion that a President should play pied piper to an uninformed people. If the only way to lead people is to encourage them to see others as inhuman, then perhaps the goal toward which he is attempting to lead them is not a good goal.

Joichi said...

This reminds me of Delay's comment that we were a super-duper power. link.

Temujin said...

I take issue with this statement:
"After all, that's what capital punishment is: killing someone in cold blood. "
Capital punishment is preventative punishment; it prevents the guilty party from committing his/her heinous crime(s) again. It effectively eliminates the possibility that the guilty person will commit similar crimes in the future. Bush reserves capital punishment for those who have committed the vilest and foulest of deeds (deliberate and planned murder/raping of children, for instance). The difference is that the beheadings of the South Korean whose name escapes me, Johnson, and Berg is that they were innocent. They did not commit any act which we would consider heinous; in fact, these people were working to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure (or something else to help the society). Death was not an acceptable punishment for whatever "crimes" they had committed. There is something evil and barbaric about what they did, and I don't want them to be able to do it again.

Blue said...

I think you missed the point. Like it or not, capital punishment is killing someone in cold blood. You claim there is justification for it. I disagree, but that wasn't the issue. Whether or not there is justification for capital punishment, it is clearly killing someone in cold blood.

Anonymous said...

So capital punishment is killing in cold blood. So what? As the previous poster points out quite simply, it keeps the person being executed from reprising whatever heinous crime they committed without sadding society with the burden of keeping somone around (life in prsion) who's very being is so flawed that they have no value to society, but rather would be a threat to it if they ever escaped or were parolled by some bizarre accident (i.e. out of control judiciary, for ex.) As to the President's comments, many people believe that evil exists in the world, just as goodness exists. The people we are at war with belong to the former category. They are a death cult, and have stated their intents and beliefs quite clearly on many occassions.

Anonymous said...

whether its written in ink or in crayon, terror is still terror. you don't have to believe in evil for evil to exist. i believe in relativsm except when some one has a knife against my throat.