Is it Worth it?

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Let’s
reexamine the infamous 1996 60 Minutes interview with [former]
Secretary of State Madeline Albright. When Albright was asked whether
the U.S. sanctions on Iraq following the Gulf War were worth the
cost, given that they were responsible for the deaths of roughly
half a million children, Albright answered, "It was a difficult
decision . . .but yes . . .I think it was worth it."

Albright's
statements were naturally controversial. Like many others from all
sides of the political spectrum, I take issue with Albright's willingness
to enact policies that harm innocent people. But to reiterate this
is just to blow hot air. After all, we know what harm was wrought
by the sanctions, and to condemn such blatantly insensitive statements
does not bring anything particularly new to our analysis. Instead
of objecting to Albright's answer, I'd like to take issue with the
legitimacy of the question itself.

Implicit
in the question of whether a particular policy is "worth it"
is the notion that we, either the government officials or the populace
that elects them, are able to assess the costs and benefits. To
make this point more clear, I believe that the exact wording of
the question posed to Albright was "Do you feel that the sanctions
were worth the cost?" While the question was one posed
to a high level U.S. official for a television interview, it is
one that we often ask ourselves as we continue to assess the efficacy
of our current war in Iraq.

How
do we go about assessing whether or not the war (or the sanctions)
were worth the cost? My speculation is that most people do a mental
calculation wherein some number of innocent deaths is an acceptable
cost to pay, while some other number becomes "too many."
To paraphrase the statements of Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage
and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Culture
,
if we knew, let's say, that a million people would die in the liberation
of Iraq, most Americans would oppose it. A couple thousand, though?
That's more reasonable. If only a couple hundred were to die, by
all means, send in the troops. A few, (or a few thousand), innocent
deaths is just an unfortunate but necessary by-product of war.

Such
thinking is, for lack of a better word, evil.

Let's
be honest: we can't know the cost. We can't even begin to conceive
of the cost. It's easy to support the murders of several thousand
people many thousands of miles away who you will never be forced
to look in the eye. It is quite another thing to envision just one
innocent death, and make it your own parent, spouse, or child. You
will never be the father who is forced to explain to his daughter
why the death of her mother was "worth it" in the name
of making the world safe for democracy. Or to be the one to explain
to the hospital-ridden boy who will never see his limbs again that
he should rejoice in the fact that at least now his country is liberated.
Or the 500,000 victims who starved to death as a result of Albright's
sanctions that their deaths were for the "greater good."
How dare we even ask the question of whether it is worth it when
we are forced to bear little of the cost ourselves? We ought to
feel deeply ashamed.

I'd
like to think we know that we hold a vast double standard, since
our leaders and citizens would never excuse the death of several
thousand of our own countrymen. The tragedy of 9/11 made this perfectly
clear. Even though many Americans saw legitimate sources for the
terrorists' anger against our government, we maintained that this
did not in any way legitimize the murder of three thousand innocent
people. We were outraged at the terrorists' disregard for the sanctity
of human life, particularly given that many of the 9/11 victims
had spouses to care for and children to raise.

The
irony is also well illustrated by Timothy McVeigh's comments prior
to his execution for blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building. When
questioned for an interview, McVeigh said that he had not known
that there were innocent children in the building. He chalked it
up to "collateral damage." I would venture to say that
McVeigh was being ironic. He was playing on the fact that we call
murder evil, but believe that government-sanctioned murder somehow
becomes acceptable.

It
is on these grounds that I dismiss the question itself. I do not
believe that I have the right to sit here in the comfort of my room,
my own life and well-being perfectly secure, and assess the expediency
of the murder of several thousand people who I will never meet.
Murder is murder. It is not collateral damage, even when sanctioned
by a government and its people.

And
this brings me to a pitfall of our beloved system of democracy.
While particular political issues are hotly debated in this country,
the system of democracy itself is held sacrosanct. It is seen as
synonymous with a free society, as an effective means for reconciling
disparate interests, and as a system that has generally sustained
this country for over two hundred years. We regard voting, the process
of democracy, as a civic virtue, as the very embodiment of our freedom.

Once
again, the question posed to Albright – coupled with an account of
American history – leads me to challenge this orthodoxy. Democracy
allows for us to make all manner of decisions about other people's
lives while bearing none of the costs. We feel perfectly justified
in pushing down a lever or punching in a ballot that quite literally
determines the fate of those we will never meet. And while we might
agitate when an administration that we did not prefer comes into
power, we accept the acts of this administration as legitimate under
the democratic electoral process.

But
of course a mere glimpse into reality shows that Democracy is hardly
a safeguard against tremendous abuse. If we start with Iraq, we
see a population that is 60% Shiite Muslim. If a democratically
elected government is an expression of the will of the people, I
reckon that our government isn't going to be too pleased with the
result of a democratically elected Iraqi government, if such a thing
ever comes about. Another example of a democratically elected government
that we don't hold much fondness for is Hitler's Nazi regime, which
started out with promises to socialize industry and champion the
working class.

But
let's now move a little closer to home. I have already mentioned
the sanctions that resulted in half a million deaths, as well as
our War on Terror that has resulted in many thousands more in both
Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's look at a few other incidents in U.S.
history during this century. Our occupation of the Philippines,
which began in 1898 (and lasted for 48 years), resulted in over
200,000 deaths of Filipino insurgents. We remain the only country
in the world that has used nuclear bombs, and we've done it twice,
devastating two large cities and their civilian populations. We
joined the other Allies during World War II in the firebombing of
Dresden which killed at least 35,000 people. We drafted many of
our least wealthy citizens to fight and die in Vietnam, a power
that posed no real threat to us.

Moving
away from the arena of war, we currently subsidize our farmers so
heavily that African farmers are unable to compete and are starving
to death in the millions. We have forced Japanese Americans into
internment camps. We continue to force otherwise crimeless drug
users into prisons. In the 1920's, over 30 states passed laws forcibly
sterilizing those deemed to be mentally deficient. One of our most
beloved presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, refused the entry of Jews
into the country during the Holocaust, despite a very clear knowledge
of their predicament. We still don't let homosexual couples get
married, and until recently, sodomy was a crime.

What's
interesting about most of these cases is that they were/are justified
as being "for the common good." They were given sanction
by the democratic process, because once again, enough people were
given the opportunity to answer the question "Is it worth it?"
and answered affirmatively. Quite a few people still believe that
the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worth it. Despite a
WTO meeting last month in Cancun in which many African governments
walked out in anger because of what our farm subsidies are doing
to their populations, our powers-that-be and the interests that
support them have apparently decided that it is worth it. So to
answer a question that was recently posed to me by an anti-gun lobbyist:
yes, I believe that this country is capable of committing genocide.
It is simply a matter of framing it in terms that are politically
expedient.

Such
are the pitfalls of democracy. These are not just flukes, but are
inherent to a system in which we get to make decisions for other
people while bearing little or none of the costs ourselves. In practice,
there can be no justice when democracy amounts to voting away the
wealth, the autonomy, and in many cases the lives of others.

In
an era where Social Democracy reigns supreme, where the welfare
interventionist state has triumphed, where government continues
to ever-increase its scope over the lives of individuals, it is
important to ask two salient questions. One is a question of principle:
Does a government (democratically elected or otherwise) have legitimate
authority over the lives of citizens simply by virtue of it being
endorsed by a majority?

Philosophers
have been trying to come up with justifications for government for
thousands of years. I've read a lot of the pertinent works on this
subject – from Rousseau's Social Contract to Rawles' Veil of
Ignorance (also add Plato, Aristotle, Waldron, Hobbes, Locke, and
Marx into the mix). I've read the pages of my college newspaper
explaining to me that I owe my "social rent" to society.
(I prefer to think of my life and property as inalienable rights
rather than social debts, but maybe I'm old fashioned). In all my
reading, I have not come upon a justification for some form of state
that was not easily refuted. Therefore, I'm convinced that the task
of legitimizing government is difficult, if not impossible. But
there's one thing that cannot be contested, and that is that the
burden of proof is on those who wish to vote away the wealth and
lives of others to explain how their actions are justifiable, rather
than being akin to the acts of a thief or murderer (these are the
analogous terms we use to describe taking somebody else's property
or life when committed by a private individual). The question of
how to justify government must be surmounted before asking any other.

The
second question, a more practical one, is, well, is it worth it?
I've put forth some evidence of the harm wrought by our own government
during just this past century. As we continue to lose the War on
Terror, the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty, all at the cost
of billions of taxpayer dollars, ask yourself whether or not it
is worth it, or whether we would be better off in a society where
government's role was significantly limited. Ask yourself whether
it is worth it in light of the atrocities, the theft, the murder
committed under the guise of this benevolent God we call democratic
government.

But
please, ask with humility. Plead your undeniable ignorance. Show
some restraint as you punch in a ballot that will dictate the fate
of others. After all, your vote has victims.

November
7, 2003

Emily
Katz [send her mail]
is an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, editor
of the school’s conservative/libertarian newspaper, the Washington
Witness
, and president of the Conservative Leadership Association.


        
        

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