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Unde Malum?


With the May 20 death of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, age 92, at his home in France, Saturday’s Chicago Tribune finally ran an obituary on the man and his work (Antonio Olivo, June 4). Which was to be expected, I guess: Because Ricoeur was a professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School for 20 years, from 1971 through his retirement in 1991. And a professor emeritus after that.


After listing some book titles and accolades, Saturday’s obit turned to William Schweiker, also a professor at the University’s Divinity School, and a man who has “written several books about Mr. Ricoeur’s work.”

According to Schweiker, Ricoeur “saw the butchery of the Second World War and asked: Out of a culture that has high ideals and high morals, how do you explain this problem of evil?”

Unde malum, in Saint Augustine’s phrase: Whence evil?

Except that I can’t help but scratch my head over Schweiker’s way of putting it. Because, in the end, do you suppose there can be anything philosophically interesting about an inquiry that begins with the recognition that a Church whose high priests proclaim even higher ideals and morals for their religion, then proceeds to feign shock or even surprise that the same Church also engages in some really rotten practices?

I mean: Do you suppose we should be impressed by the observation that, in the human world, proclamations of “high ideals and high morals” often accompany the practice of “evil”—indeed, accompany the practice of “evil” with nearly as much regularity as the thunder does the lightning or the cold the winter? And that, in the poet’s words, “We who wished to prepare the soil for kindness/could not be kind ourselves”?

For example: Did the Romans conquer the world in “self-defense,” as Livy reported (sarcastically, I might add)? Or did the Romans conquer the world out of a rapacious desire to possess its fruits merely?

And in all honesty, could you find yourself marveling over a philosopher or an artist whose work was silly enough to ponder the mysteries of how the Romans’ modern counterparts, acting out of the highest ideals and morals, managed to kill and destroy and plunder and rape?

I mean, and in real-world terms: How’s that for action that suits?

Paul Ricoeur: Radical Christian philosopher struggling with the dilemmas of existence,” Jonathan Ree, The Guardian, May 23, 2005
Paul Ricoeur, 92, Wide-Ranging French Philosopher, Is Dead,” Margalit Fox, New York Times, May 24, 2005
Paul Ricoeur: Philosopher of Skeptical Pluralism,” David Childs, The Independent, May 25, 2005
Paul Ricoeur, 92: Philosopher; Taught at U. of C.,” Antonio Olivo, Chicago Tribune, June 4, 2005

Postscript (June 6): Look. I regard it as pretty close to self-evident that all questions concerning “evil” (though I don’t like the word, and prefer to steer clear of it) need to be answered empirically. Neither in terms of “high ideals and high morals” run amok. Nor “well-meaning and fallible human institutions.” But, rather, in terms of what individuals or groups or states actually do.

But whereas I do not think that doing bad things is excusable or erasable in virtue of any “high ideals and high morals” one may proclaim, I also think that it is an intellectual parlor game to ponder how butchery can co-exist with noble intentions (and the like). Remember: The mystery isn’t that liars and cheats and rapists and murderers in their defense proclaim the best of intentions. It is that anybody is stupid enough to listen. And even this mystery evaporates, the moment one recognizes the rules of the game and the rewards which follow from playing along and keeping one’s mouth shut. At whatever level. There being no ceiling to stupidity. Clearly.

A case in point is the current spat between Amnesty International and the regime in Washington over A.I.’s recent charge that the “detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law.” (Irene Khan, May, 2005.)

“The United States cannot simultaneously claim that it ‘promotes freedom around the world’ while detaining tens of thousands at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Iraq and other locations without charge or trial and allowing those civilian and military officials responsible for orchestrating a systematic policy of torture to escape accountability,” William F. Schulz, the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, wrote in a letter published in Saturday’s New York Times (June 4).

Notice, first, that Schulz’s point is trivially true; and notice, second, that Schulz finds it “ironic” that the U.S. Government has been affirming A while doing Not-A.—I wonder whether Schulz and his colleagues can cite any evidence of the U.S. Government promoting freedom around the world, such that this concept of irony even has a place within an analysis that finds the U.S. Government falling short of such high ideals? Between ourselves, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the regime that ran the original gulag suffered from similarly pesky critics around the edges.

Or how about when the editorial voice of the New York Times states Sunday morning that although “What Guantanamo exemplifies—harsh, indefinite detention without formal charges or legal recourse—may or may not bring to mind the Soviet Union’s sprawling network of Stalinist penal colonies,” still, Guantanamo “has nothing in common with any American notions of justice or the rule of law” (“Un-American by Any Name,” June 5)?

Might the editorial board at the Times care to explain to us what actual American practices on behalf of justice and the rule of law they have in mind, such that the Geneva Convention-busting interrogation and torture chambers at Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray and elsewhere can be fairly said to violate them?

Cognitive dissonance indeed. Notice two things. First, how vigilant is the American Right when it comes to defending American Power. It simply never misses a trick. “We know that al Qaeda operatives are trained to charge torture when they are in detention, and specifically to charge abuse of the Koran to inflame fellow prisoners on the inside and potential sympathizers on the outside,” Charles Krauthammer instructs from the pages of the Washington Post (June 3). And, second, notice how the totality of expressed opinion in the States marches in lockstep with the dominant views that already find expression by the Right. Within the establishment media, what passes for an “alternative” critique concedes almost everything to the Right, and prove utterly accomodationist towards it, time and again. To quote A.I.’s Secretary General Irene Khan, writing in the Toronto Star (May 29): “The U.S. should recommit to the rule of law and human rights, and begin to repair actions that damage American credibility.”—See what I mean? An appalling degree of accomodationism—no matter whom it comes from. And yet this from no less a source than the Secretary General of the powerful and prestigious human rights organization that just launched the “gulag of our time” charge against the Americans in the first place. You’d think she’s running for Congress as an Independent from the State of Vermont.

Not to be outdone: Anybody interested in reading some hardcore cognitive dissonance—outright lying, to be more honest—should take a look at Fox News online’s report about Schulz’s June 5 appearance on the network, beginning with the fourth paragraph (“Amnesty International recently slammed the…”).

Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1949)

‘American Gulag’,” Editorial, Washington Post, May 26, 2005
Why Amnesty demands higher standard from U.S.,” Iene Khan, Toronto Star, May 29, 2005
Gitmo Grovel: Enough Already,” Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, June 3, 2005
Rights Group Defends Chastising of U.S.,” Lizette Alvarez, New York Times, June 4, 2005
Amnesty Chief: ‘Gulag’ Not the Best Analogy,” Fox News, June 5, 2005
Judge orders Pentagon to release 100 new photos of Abu Ghraib prison abuse,” Andrew Gumbel, The Independent, June 5, 2005
Un-American by Any Name,” Editorial, New York Times, June 5, 2005
Gitmo is not the gulag,” Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 2005
An Administration’s Amnesty Amnesia,” Dana Milbank, Washington Post, June 5, 2005
The image war over US detainees,” Peter Grier, Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2005

FYA (“For your archives”): The complete text of William F. Schulz’s June 4 letter as published in the New York Times; and below this, the complete text of Irene Khan’s June 2 letter as published in the Washington Post, in response to the Post‘s truly despicable editorial “‘American Gulag’” (May 26).

To the Editor:

President Bush’s characterization of Amnesty International’s criticisms of United States human rights abuses as ”absurd” is ironic (news article, June 1).

If our reports are so ”absurd,” why did the administration repeatedly cite our findings about Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war? Why does it welcome our criticisms of Cuba, China and North Korea? And why does it cite our research in its own annual human rights reports?

No amount of spin can erase the myriad human rights abuses committed by United States officials in the ”war on terror.” The United States cannot simultaneously claim that it ”promotes freedom around the world” while detaining tens of thousands at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Iraq and other locations without charge or trial and allowing those civilian and military officials responsible for orchestrating a systematic policy of torture to escape accountability.

Instead of attacking us, President Bush should insist upon a truly thorough, independent investigation of those who tried to circumvent global prohibitions on torture, and he should open all detention centers to scrutiny by independent human rights groups.

Only then will the world be able to judge whether it is Amnesty International or the president whose perspective deserves to be called ”absurd.”

William F. Schulz
Exec. Dir., Amnesty International
New York, June 1, 2005

The Washington Post
June 2, 2005 Thursday
Final Edition
SECTION: Editorial; A22
HEADLINE: A U.S. Gulag by Any Name

The May 26 editorial ” ‘American Gulag’ ” risked letting a semantic argument overshadow extraordinary and unlawful U.S. policy and actions.

For more than three years, the United States has operated an isolated prison colony in Cuba in which people are confined arbitrarily, held incommunicado without charge, and denied trial or access to due process. The editorial overlooked U.S. operation of a worldwide network of prisons beyond Guantanamo Bay — extending from Afghanistan to Diego Garcia, from Pakistan to Iraq to Jordan — even to U.S. ships.

A March 13 editorial acknowledged “a clandestine network of overseas prisons.” To the more than 70,000 prisoners — none yet tried, many tortured or ill-treated, enduring years of detention and interrogation — the prisons are far from “ad hoc.” The United States should recommit to respecting the rule of law and human rights, actions that could begin to repair damaged U.S. credibility from what an April 26 editorial called “one of the most serious human rights scandals in U.S. history.”

Far from overemphasizing U.S. actions, Amnesty International’s annual report exposed human rights violations in 149 countries. As just one example the organization cited the tragedy in Darfur as representative of the “indifference, erosion and impunity that marks the human rights landscape.” Amnesty International will continue to press all governments and armed groups to respect human rights and dignity.

IRENE KHAN
Secretary General
Amnesty International
London

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