Monday, June 05, 2006

Speaking of responsibility

The difference between this and Haditha is entirely a matter of how close the person holding the knife was to the person whose throat was cut:

On Monday, U.S.-led forces fired artillery at the train station in Anbar's provincial capital of Ramadi, "targeting four military-aged males unloading a weapons cache."

A hospital official, Dr. Omar al-Duleimi, said American forces killed five civilians and wounded 15. The U.S. military said the mission had "positive effects on the target," but it denied that civilians were killed or injured in the city west of the capital.
Note the careful denials of responsibility. First, "four military-aged males" (clearly making them "target-worthy") who were "targeted" (non-responsible death by passive voice). But they aren't even killed; instead, the "mission" had "positive effects on the target." And no animals or humans were killed in the making of this story.

Almost like the story of Abraham and Isaac, except there, God provided the animal. But God also swore Abraham to a secret. What is the secret we are keeping from ourselves, in Iraq?

The sacrifice of Isaac is an abomination in the eyes of all, and it should continue to be seen for what it is-atrocious, criminal, unforgivable; Kierkegaard insists on that. The ethical point of view must remain valid: Abraham is a murderer. However, is it not true that the spectacle of this murder, which seems intolerable in the denseness and rhythm of its theatricality, is at the same time the most common event in the world? Is it not inscribed in the structure of our existence to the extent of no longer constituting an event? It will be said that it would be most improbable for the sacrifice of Isaac to be repeated in our day; and it certainly seems that way. We can hardly imagine a father taking his son to be sacrificed on the top of the hill at Montmartre. If God didn't send a lamb as a substitute or an angel to hold back his arm, there would still be a prosecutor, preferably with expertise in Middle Eastern violence, to accuse him of infanticide or first-degree murder; and if a psychiatrist who was both something of a psychoanalyst and something of a journalist declared that the father was "responsible," carrying on as if psychoanalysis had done nothing to upset the order of discourse on intention, conscience, good will, etc., the criminal father would have no chance of getting away with it. He might claim that the wholly other had ordered him to do it, and perhaps in secret (how would he know that?), in order to test his faith, but it would make no difference. Things are such that this man would surely be condemned by any civilized society. On the other hand, the smooth functioning of such a society, the monotonous complacency of its discourses on morality, politics, and the law, and the exercise of its rights (whether public, private, national or international), are in no way impaired by the fact that, because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other similar inequities, that same "society" puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts for only a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children (those neighbors or fellow humans that ethics or the discourse of the rights of man refer to) without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of others to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only is it true that such a society participates in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it. The smooth functioning of its economic, political, and legal affairs, the smooth functioning of its moral discourse and good conscience presupposes the permanent operation of this sacrifice. And such a sacrifice is not even invisible, for from time to time television shows us, while keeping them at a distance, a series of intolerable images, and a few voices are raised to bring it all to our attention. But those images and voices are completely powerless to induce the slightest effective change in the situation, to assign the least responsibility, to furnish anything more than a convenient alibi. That this order is founded upon a bottomless chaos (the abyss or open mouth) is something that will necessarily be brought home one day to those who just as necessarily forget the same. We are not even talking about wars, the less recent or most recent ones, in which cases one can wait an eternity for morality or international law (whether violated with impunity or invoked hypocritically) to determine with any degree of certainty who is responsible or guilty for the hundreds of thousands of victims who are sacrificed for what or whom one knows not, countless victims, each of whose singularity becomes each time infinitely singular, every other (one) being every (bit) other, whether they be victims of the Iraqi state or victims of the international coalition that accuses the latter of not respecting the law. For in the discourses that dominate during such wars, it is rigorously impossible, on one side and the other, to discern the religious from the moral, the legal from the political. The warring factions are all irreconcilable fellow worshipers of the religions of the Book. Does that not make things converge once again in the fight to the death that continues to rage on Mount Moriah over the possession of the secret of the sacrifice by an Abraham who never said anything? Do they not fight in order to take possession of the secret as the sign of an alliance with God and to impose its order on the other, who becomes for his part nothing more than a murderer?
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1995) pp. 85-87.

We all participate in the sacrifice of Isaac everyday, just by participating in modern society. The difference between Abraham and us, is simply one of intimacy: we don't murder our child, but we murder other people's children. Are the Marines at Haditha responsible for their actions? Of course; but so are we. Were conditions there worse than conditions anywhere else in the world? Perhaps. But what excuse is that? It ameliorates legal responsibility; but not moral responsibility.

That danger is captured in a national survey due to be released Monday by the liberal Center for American Progress. The survey, conducted in late February, underscores the importance of religion and morality in Americans' lives. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said they prayed at least once a day, and just over half said they attended religious services at least once a week. Concern that the country had lost its moral compass was widespread.

These findings challenge the values agenda of both parties. They do point to priorities different from the conservative focus on gay rights and abortion. But they also suggest liberals don't hit the mark either when they try to signal their values simply by describing causes, such as reducing poverty, as moral imperatives. "There is a deep hunger to get away from religion being associated solely with the antiabortion and anti-gay marriage agenda — there is a deep public yearning for an alternative moral vision," said John Halpin, a senior fellow and opinion analyst at the Center for American Progress. "But it's not just talking about the left's issues and tagging the word 'moral' on it. You have to talk to people at a personal and family level about what faith and values mean."
From LA Times:

I think this is exactly right; but the lesson is not "There is a spiritual hunger in the country," the lesson is a counter-intuitive one: Beware of thinking you are the person with that vision, the one who can assuage that hunger. Because that is when you become nothing more than a murderer.

The Biblical witness is that that moral vision always comes from God: not from priests, or kings, or rabbis, but from God. The prophets called it "the word of the Lord," and when they spoke for God, they spoke not their word, but "the word of the Lord." And it was given to the people of Israel, a nation that is a people in a way no nation today can even begin to claim to be. Israel had a covenant with God, and that covenant is what made the nation of Israel (so set aside all 19th century European notions of nationalism and the nation state). A national moral vision cannot be provided today because there is no one authorized to provide that vision to the people for the Almighty. This is where Niebuhr's Moral Man analysis engages: the country cannot afford to act morally; it must act for self-preservation, or it abrogates all authority to act for the people of the country.

So you cannot teach a county not to study war anymore. You can only teach it to a people. Or, in modern parlance, to people. Individuals. Families. Groups sympathetic and supportive of a commonly acknowledged set of ideals, or moral principles that go beyond the restrictions of law (which amount to little more than "don't cause undue harm to another person.") And you cannot impose a moral vision on another; because then you are fighting to "take possession of the secret as a sign of the alliance with God." And we never understand alliances except as defining those who are with us, and those who are against us. So long as we can do that, we can justify what is done to those who are against us. But if all we can really do is to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, in the apousia (absence), not the parousia (presence) of the Master, then we begin to understand that we all stand on common ground, that we all seek a spiritual vision, that whoever we are and wherever we live, we hunger for the same things.

And no one is against us. For if the Lord is with us, who can be against us? And if the Lord is with everyone, the least and the lowliest, who are certainly the most plentiful, then how can we be against them, and not be against the Lord? Once we begin to see the basiliea in those terms, we begin to give up responsibility, and take on joy.

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