Haditha: Selective Moral Outrage

Steyn's flippancy when it comes to the slaughter of innocents should give anyone pause, but rightwing bloggers will eat up his every word.
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Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn, a darling of radical rightwing bloggers, treats his legions of fans to this incoherent rant about Haditha. Steyn adds his voice to a growing number of prominent rightwingers who seem to be coming unhinged over recent reports of U.S. atrocities in Iraq.

Steyn is a self-styled 'conservative' worshipped by many on the right for his Hitchens-esque turns of phrase (no, not a compliment) and Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) is a high-profile blogger who fancies himself a libertarian. Both of these men are part of a lemming-like march of rightwingers who, in response to Haditha, have discarded any last shred of reason and are flailing wildly not just in the direction of liberals and other assorted "America-haters", but in the case of Steyn, at other hawks: "If you're one of the ever swelling numbers of molting hawks among the media, the political class and the American people for whom Haditha is the final straw, that's not a sign of your belated moral integrity but of your fundamental unseriousness."

Speaking of fundamental unseriousness, there are seriously fundamental flaws at the core of Steyn's argument. He writes: "Anyone who supports the launching of a war should be clear-sighted enough to know that, when the troops go in, a few of them will kill civilians, bomb schools, torture prisoners. It happens in every war in human history, even the good ones.... It might be a bombed mosque or a gunned-down pregnant woman or a slaughtered wedding party, but it will certainly be something. And, in the scales of history, it makes no difference to the justice of the cause and the need for victory." Setting aside the stunning callousness of Steyn's remarks, he hints at the problem without realizing it: Iraq is not a "good" war. And even those who supported the invasion are entitled to a change of heart as it spirals out of control.

Having said that, I'm not writing this to defend hawks. My beef with Steyn and the many rightwing bloggers who are using Haditha as a tool to bash the left is that they are indulging in selective moral outrage. Their fury at Saddam knows no bounds, but they are strangely silent about other brutal dictators and human rights offenders. They decry every beheading in Iraq as a crime against the human race but can glibly write, "For three years, coalition forces in Iraq behaved so well that a salivating Vietnam culture had to make do with the thinnest of pickings: one depraved jailhouse, a prisoner on a dog leash with a pair of Victoria's Secret panties on his head and an unusually positioned banana." When Steyn suggests that a "gunned-down pregnant woman or a slaughtered wedding party ... makes no difference to the justice of the cause," he is displaying precisely the ethical bankruptcy that the war's opponents are fighting against.

Steyn's flippancy when it comes to the slaughter of innocents should give anyone pause, but rightwing bloggers will eat up his every word. After all, he is engaging in their favorite tactic: whenever the facts undermine their specious logic, turn around and attack principled Americans for defending America's values. (For good measure, he throws in a little Cindy Sheehan and Robert Fisk, as though either of them speak to the much larger question of America's moral standing. He also dredges up the most tired of tired rightwing canards: the "liberal media" - masterfully debunked here.)

In the end, it's not about ethics for these people - however righteous they may feel - it's about refusing to admit that those who marched in the streets in opposition to the war were right. Last November I wrote about the straw men of Iraq: "Somber references to mass graves, Saddam gassing his people, liberating the Iraqis from a dictator, spreading freedom, etc., are second only to flag-waving and bumper-sticker "support" for the troops when it comes to feel-good justifications for the fiasco in Iraq. To human rights activists, this faux-bleeding heart conservatism rings hollow. Considering the unremitting suffering and killing and violence and abuse of innocents that takes place on this planet, it is intellectually dishonest to resort to a retroactive humanitarian rationalization for a war that was ostensibly defensive in nature. Especially when we callously ignore the plight of so many others who suffer in silence."

In their rush to ascribe malicious motives to anyone who draws attention to the horrors in Iraq, these people ignore the obvious, i.e. that the greater the aberration, the more newsworthy, not the less. In other words, it's because the war's critics have faith in the character of our troops and our nation that they are so deeply troubled by such grotesque deviations from the norm. It is the war's critics, not its blind supporters, who assume the best about our military and who harp on stories like Haditha because it is contrary to everything they believe about America. The contrast is stark between those who rise in condemnation and those who shrug off a few slaughtered women and children.

I'll end by quoting a fellow Huffposter: "Our national identity is based on holding ourselves, and our country, to the highest moral standard on Earth. And that -- rather than this kind of slippery rationalizing -- is true patriotism."

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