"We should not as a society grow life to destroy it," said President Bush in response to the news that a Massachusetts company had cloned a human embryo. Though Bush says that’s "exactly what’s taking place," scientists interviewed dispute that there is any cloning going on.
As has become the norm with these bioethics issues, no one can even agree on the essential facts of the case. Larry Goldstein of the University of California at San Diego said the company "induced human eggs to undergo a couple of rounds of divisions. What they made was not human. I don’t know what they made, but they’re not really embryos.”
Human life or no, Bush is clearly concerned. So let’s talk about some other forms of life that are currently under some degree of stress, namely life in the suburbs of Khanabad, Afghanistan. We are not talking embryos or embryo-like objects. These are full-grown adults and their children. No scientists dispute that these are people. No one disputes that life is being destroyed. What’s in dispute is the justification. What Bush says that science must not do, he is more than willing to do under the guise of war.
The other day, American cluster bombs fell in this area and killed at least 100 unarmed civilians. These facts have been confirmed by many Western observers. One man affected is Juma Khan of Charikari, husband and father of six. Make that widower and father of one 11-year-old daughter named Gulshan who has severe head injuries but is still breathing, thank God. A bomb hit their house during the breakfast hour of 8am. It killed five of his children and nine other family members, including his brother and his brother’s children.
“I was just sitting there. The next thing I knew, people were digging me out of the rubble,” Mr. Khan told the Independent. In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, this is just war and we have to buck up to face it, and then escalate. But to Khan, this was his wife, his children, his brother, and his nieces and nephews—all that really matters in the world.
Who is responsible? The pilot who dropped the bombs? Maybe. But there will be no prosecutions. It’s not even clear that there are channels for such things. Despite the platitudes about sparing innocents heard early in this war, there is no outcry or even admission of wrongdoing.
Besides, the pilot was following orders. Who was giving the orders? Sure, the generals, but on whose authority are they operating? The Joint Chiefs of Staff, but who empowers them? There’s only one man: George W. Bush, the man who just decried cloning on grounds that it represents an attack on life.
Bush is willing to use all his now-considerable power to try to stop the division of human embryos, and isn’t going to let any platitudes about the "progress of science" stop him. And yet here is a case where he has full power to stop the destruction of life right now. One word and it’s done. And yet he does nothing. Far from it: he orders more bombing in more countries, using violence to achieve his political ends.
It strikes me that here we have a very interesting case of human psychology. As a man, Bush wouldn’t hurt anyone, particularly not innocent people. As president, he believes it is his responsibility to defend the right to life. But as commander-in-chief, he can in good conscience oversee the wholesale slaughter of innocents and lose no sleep. He can smile, laugh, and enjoy 85 percent popularity.
Of course, many thinkers have exposed the immorality of the State and its wars, including Frederic Bastiat, Albert Jay Nock, H.L. Mencken, Betrand de Jouvenel, Herbert Spencer, Franz Oppenheimer, and Murray N. Rothbard, among many others. Their writings provide brilliant insight into how the State "thinks," and its exaltation of itself and its interests over everything else on earth.
These intellectuals show, for example, that the State purports to punish theft and murder while making theft and murder the very essence of its domestic and foreign policy. The State claims to make and uphold the law, yet exempts itself from punishment when it transgresses that law. It claims to punish evil doers, yet its own actions, in war and the regular conduct of domestic policy, inspire and motivate evil doers to copy the State’s ways. And when it comes to actually punishing crime, it hits crime against itself far more severely than crimes against its citizens.
All this is clear. But what can we say about a man like Bush, a decent fellow who loves his family, who goes to church, who probably entered public life with the most sincere motivations. How does he sleep and pray knowing that his decisions as president are tearing off the heads and ripping open the bellies of innocents? Does he blame the terrorists for making him do this? Perhaps, but that only takes him so far. Under no standard of justice is killing non-combatants in another nation a proper retaliation for the killing of non-combatants in our nation.
There’s no cracking some mysteries of the human heart, but I think the answer has something to do with the ideology of public service, and particularly the mythology of the moral burden of the presidency. For generations, every historian of note has held up the most mass-murdering of presidents for public adulation. The "moral burden" of the presidency amounts to doing very immoral things, under the cover of statesmanship, and not letting it affect one’s sense of well being.
"The evil that men do lives after them," Shakespeare has Mark Antony say. "The good is oft interred with their bones." But with US presidents, it’s usually precisely the opposite.
Can all the top historians be wrong? Yes, certainly. But it takes a special kind of intellect and moral courage to reach this conclusion. You have to be an extremely independent thinker. If you are like Bush, a conventional sort of guy, you are perfectly willing to believe the conventional wisdom: that what a president does in wartime is not mass murder but rather statesmanship, that leaders of great nations are not held to the same standard of right and wrong that binds the rest of us.
That is why it is more urgent than ever to underscore the essential idea of the liberal tradition, that morality is universal and that the State is not exempt from it. The religious dimension to that idea says that God is no respecter of persons, that the same standard will someday be used to judge us all. The social-political implication is that we should not grow life in order to destroy it, by any means, whether science or war. Only the tradition that applies that view consistently can restrain the State, and it must be taught to a new generation.