Friday, August 15, 2008

There are no rats in Oran

In Just War against Terror, The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (2003), Jean Bethke Elshtain begins by referring to Camus’ The Plague in which “humanists may smash underfoot a rat carrying the plague bacillus but claim, ‘There are no rats in Oran.’ Why? Because there cannot be. . . . The thinking of the ‘reasonable’ Camus’s narrator suggests, is dominated by their own internal preferences, rather than the concrete realities of the situation.

“Camus’s ‘humanists’ are unwilling or unable to peer into the heart of darkness. They have banished the word evil from their vocabularies. Evil refers to something so unreasonable, after all! Therefore, it cannot really exist. Confronted by people who mean to kill them and to destroy their society, these well-meaning persons deny the enormity of what is going on.

“To such arguments the late political theorist Hannah Arendt would have had a sharp retort. ‘Politics is not the nursery,’ she liked to say. Practicing a reasonableness based on the calculations of the ‘humanist’ world of infinite negotiation and ‘logical’ explanation is often of little use in helping us to face harsh evidence unfolding before our eyes. Moreover, naivetĂ© – concluding that horrific events are momentary setbacks and will surely be brought to heel by ‘reasonable’ persons (who shrink from speaking of evil) – can get thousands of innocents killed.”

Elshtain is an ethicist who writes, “I wrote this book because I have been provoked by much of what has been written and said about terrorism and our responses to it; because September 11, 2001, reminded me of what it means to be an American citizen, because I come from a small people, Volga Germans, who would have been murdered or exiled to the Soviet Union’s farthest provinces by Joseph Stalin had they remained in Russia rather than making the wrenching journey to America in the waning years of the nineteenth century; because I am a woman who believes women must have scope to exercise their educated powers to the fullest; because I have grandchildren who deserve to grow up in a world of civic peace, as do all the world’s children; because I am a believer who believes that other believers have the same rights I do because we are all equal before God; because I also believe that with our rights come responsibilities including the responsibility to reflect on the use of force and whether it can ever be used to promote justice and because I share the commitment of my late friend, Christopher Lasch, to a robust culture of democratic argument.”

Lawrence Helm

No comments: