President Bush, The Moral Relativist

President Bush once remarked that he lept into the fray of politics in
an attempt to undo the moral relativism of the sixties. In that regard,
he has frequently exercised his presidential sneer for what he takes to
be sixty-ish situation type ethics. Yet, for all of his absolutist
posturing and his penchant for making brash moral judgments, Mr. Bush is
fast becoming one of the relativists that he has so roundly and
routinely criticized.

Over the last five years, the President has often emphasized, "The world
has changed since 9/11." By that he seems to mean that a new set of
moral/ political rules has come into effect since the Twin Towers came
down. Because we are facing the threat of terrorism, the President has
authorized holding people indefinitely without trials, wiretapping
without a warrant, and setting up interrogation shops in foreign
countries. Last month, he pounded his fist and jabbed the air
proclaiming that the US should not be bound by the 57-year old Geneva
Convention banning the use of torture.

Remarkably enough, after all the ballyhooing of former torture victim
Senator McCain and others, the President won a compromise signED a bill
lastTuesday that putatively clarifies the terms of the Geneva ban on
torture. Sad to say, many believe that this retroactive legislation is
intended to protect the President, US agents, and our armed forces from
charges of war crimes.

The implicit suggestion in Bush's argument is that if matters were
otherwise, if we were in a regular war against the dependable Nazis or
North Koreans, then there would be no need to tweak this sacrosanct
international code. But to listen to the President, our present foes are
just too dangerous for us to swear off the use of pain as an elixir. In
other terms, President Bush seems to believe that, relatively speaking,
torture is wrong, but that using electrodes to spark truth-telling is
justifiable in certain situations, as long as it doesn't cause "a burn
or physical disfigurement of a serious nature (other than cuts,
abrasions, or bruises)" -- as though the use of "serious" in this context was any more
transparent than the terms of Common Article 3

Many people had a good laugh listening to then President Clinton parse
words during the Monica Lewinsky debacle. But it seems that Mr. Bush
also has a penchant for term splitting. In presenting his case, the
President took issue with the use of the term "outrageous" in the Geneva
agreement. "Outrageous?" snickered Bush, "Who's to say what is
outrageous?" After signing the Military Commissions Act on Tuesday, the
Great Decider will be the one empowered with the wisdom to say what is

Someone with a firmer set of convictions, however, would insist that
inflicting serious pain on a suspect is torture and that torture is
plain wrong, no matter what the circumstances and no matter what good
consequences might issue from it.

With a set jaw, the President has certainly shown this firmness on other
issues, such as embryonic stem cell research. Even though Mr. Bush
acknowledges that this science might help us discover the cure for
terrible diseases, he refuses to sanction the creation of new stem cell
lines on the grounds that the lives that might be saved would not change
the fact that creating life for research purposes remains wrong. With
regard to prisoners of our war on terrorism, matters moral are a little
more fluid. President Bush might carry himself like the sheriff of moral
clarity, but when it comes to moral principles he is a cut and run