The Moral Blindness of Our Leading Liberals

Behold the quintessential earnest progressive liberal in the highest moral dudgeon: Digby railing with thunderous fury at the possibility (the very distinct possibility) that Barack Obama is going to suppress the Senate’s report on CIA torture. Digby quotes the recent letter from some of Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who are calling on Obama to release the report (and close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, for good measure.) Worthy sentiments and justifiable anger indeed. But then Digby adds this gloss:

“Honestly, if they deep six the report (or redact it so heavily that it’s meaningless) I think President Obama has no choice but to give back his prize. There’s [sic] a lot of actions he’s taken as president that people could claim disqualify him for the prize anyway. Arguments about the dirty wars and targeted assassination programs alone will go on for generations. But one can, at least, say they represent some form of modern warfare and that the President of a military Empire is always going to be required to deal in such ugly matters. (That, in fact, s one reason why it was ludicrous to give him the prize in the first place — he runs the most powerful killing machine on the planet.)

But however you see his performance as Commander in Chief, There can be no debate about torture. It’s a war crime. It should be prosecuted. But even if they cannot do that, covering it up is to be complicit.”

Old cynic that I am, I must admit that even my grizzled jaw dropped as I read these words. “Arguments about the dirty wars and targeted assassination programs alone will go on for generations.” This, again, is from one of our leading liberal lights. She thinks dirty wars — secret incursions into other nations to murder, subvert, wreak havoc, terrorize — are open to debate. She thinks that “targeted assassination programs” — one of which is run directly out of the White House, with regular weekly meetings where Obama and his advisors tick off names of human beings to be killed without warning, without the slightest pretense of judicial process or rule of law — will be argued about for generations. The morality of death squads and dirty wars is something about which serious, concerned citizens can disagree and debate, apparently.

Running a death squad — which, among many others, kills American citizens without due process, then, just for the hell of it, murders their children: this doesn’t put a person beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior. Not at all. It’s something we can argue about, sure; but not only is it within the parameters of acceptable behavior, it does not even disqualify you from enthusiastic political support, not even from earnest, peace-loving antiwar liberals like Digby, who fought tooth and nail to keep Obama running his death squads and dirty wars in 2012. (And if he could run for a third term there is no doubt — none whatsoever — that he would have fierce backing of the earnest, peace-loving antiwar liberals like Digby.)

But my poor jaw had not yet done descending. For Digby, astonishingly, goes on to offer one of those arguments for state murder and the Nuremberg-level war crime of carrying out “dirty wars” on the sovereign territory of other nations: “One can, at least, say they represent some form of modern warfare and that the President of a military Empire is always going to be required to deal in such ugly matters.”

Now, I’m sure we are all to understand that Digby herself wouldn’t make that argument. But she does see its point. She thinks it’s something that can be debated. She might not like it, she might even oppose it (while of course never opposing the continuation of its perpetrator in power). But from the gritty, savvy realpolitik perspective that our earnest progressive liberals are always so keen to show they understand and appreciate, you can certainly make that argument and remain within the bounds of respectable debate in Digby’s eyes.

Isn’t this a wonderment? A progressive, peace-loving liberalism that can accept a president actually checking off names on a death list, like Stalin in the Politburo — that can accept “dirty wars” that have slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians and destabilized whole regions, breeding more violence and terror. And although Digby has criticized such actions, it is obvious that none of them have put Obama beyond the moral pale for her. He’s still within the bounds of acceptable realpolitik. (“Hey, the guy has to run a military Empire. What’s he supposed to do?”). He is still — if only just — on “our” side.

Wholesale murder, wanton destruction, untold — and unnecessary — anguish and grief and suffering and turmoil: these things can be borne, if reluctantly, by our liberal progressive peace-lovers. But torture — that, apparently, is the one thing that is beyond the pale. And in this particular case, it is not even torture being carried out by the Obama administration. (There is torture still going on, of course, but it’s not at issue in the Senate report on past CIA actions which has so fixated our progressive liberals.) No, just the mere act of covering up a report on past torture is, for Digby, a step too far at last. Killing, mayhem, subversion — well OK, if you have to; but torture — why, that’s “a war crime”! There can be absolutely “no debate about torture.”

But here the obvious question arises: why not? If you can swallow all the rest and still support the perpetrator, why draw the line at torture? If, by Digby’s own logic, you can “at least” make the argument that dirty wars and death squads “represent some form of modern warfare” — then why not torture? Why not lump it in with those other “forms of modern warfare”? “Hey, we do lots of things now that used to be considered war crimes — because we now face new dangers in our modern warfare. We have to kill people without due process, we have wage dirty wars — and every now and then, we have to get rough with a prisoner. If you can support a president who murders and subverts, why not support him when he tortures, or covers up for torturers?”

What is that makes torture worse than actually murdering innocent people? Why is torture an undebatable war crime, but blowing up children sleeping in their homes in some Pakistani village is something that can be “argued about” — indeed, such an open moral question that the debate will go on “for generations”?

The truth, of course, is that murder and dirty war are even worse than torture. But all of them partake of a radical evil that should put any perpetrator beyond the pale, making the person a war criminal who indeed “should be prosecuted.” But if our earnest progressive liberals took off their blinders and acknowledged this truth — then what? They would have to admit that they have been supporting — with however much showy reluctance and “savvy” constructive criticism — the perpetrator of monstrous war crimes.

So they focus on what is, relatively speaking, the lesser evil. Probably because most of them believe that Obama really has abolished torture in our far-flung gulags and bases and “secret facilities,” rather than just entrenching it and codifying it with new manuals and different jargon. So in the end, Obama is not really that evil, is he? Since they cannot accept the full moral import of the death squads and dirty wars, they expend their righteous fury on the safer and more limited ground of torture. Or again, in this case, on “complicity” with torture, by covering up a report on the crimes committed years ago by the real bad guys, from the other side of the partisan divide: the Bush gang.

But let’s say that Obama does quash or whitewash the report, confirming his “complicity” in torture. What then? What condign punishment does our morally furious liberal progressive envision for him in that case? Impeachment? Prosecution? Imprisonment? No. If Obama does this really, really bad thing — which is so much worse than murdering people and waging dirty war — then Digby believes he should … he should … give his Nobel Peace Prize back.

That’s it. Pretty rough, huh? That would really teach him a lesson, if he had to do that!

But even if Digby’s worst fears come to pass, is there anyone who believes that she would then disown the president, break with him, denounce him publicly as a war criminal? Of course not. She, and the other earnest progressive liberals, will continue to support him — with loving chastisement and sad shakes of the head, to be sure — but they’ve got his back.

And we will see them on the hustings for Hilary Clinton when the time comes for her to perpetrate these same moral outrages, these same war crimes. Their partisan tribalism blinds them to the fullness of the reality that confronts us. (And I know how that works; I suffered from the same tribal blindness for many, many years.) They cannot genuinely and effectively oppose the monstrous system of military Empire because, in the end, what is most important to them is not stopping the system — but making sure that one of “theirs” is running it.

Chris Floyd is a columnist for CounterPunch Magazine. His blog, Empire Burlesque, can be found at www.chris-floyd.com.

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Chris Floyd is a columnist for CounterPunch Magazine. His blog, Empire Burlesque, can be found at www.chris-floyd.com.

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