Commentary Magazine


Topic: Boston bombing

John Kerry’s Shameful Moral Relativism

Those who doubted the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March had their first “I told you so” moment the very next day. Speaking to Turkish reporters, Erdogan appeared to immediately backtrack on his end of the rapprochement, which included dropping the case against the Israel Defense Forces for defending themselves from the Turkish-supported flotilla activists seeking to violently crash the naval blockade of the terrorist group Hamas.

A successful normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey would be beneficial to regional stability, so Netanyahu presumably offered the apology fully aware of the risks of dealing with Erdogan and believing they were outweighed by the rewards. But one of the reasons some opposed the apology at all was because they understandably feared it would legitimize the status of victimhood claimed by the violent invaders and endorse a frightful moral relativism which already undermines Israel’s attempts to defend itself.

But the moral relativism between the IDF and the armed naval invaders, while unfortunate, is fully eclipsed by the offensive and indefensible moral relativism Secretary of State John Kerry offered this weekend in trying to soothe Erdogan’s ego. According to the Associated Press:

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Those who doubted the wisdom of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March had their first “I told you so” moment the very next day. Speaking to Turkish reporters, Erdogan appeared to immediately backtrack on his end of the rapprochement, which included dropping the case against the Israel Defense Forces for defending themselves from the Turkish-supported flotilla activists seeking to violently crash the naval blockade of the terrorist group Hamas.

A successful normalization of relations between Israel and Turkey would be beneficial to regional stability, so Netanyahu presumably offered the apology fully aware of the risks of dealing with Erdogan and believing they were outweighed by the rewards. But one of the reasons some opposed the apology at all was because they understandably feared it would legitimize the status of victimhood claimed by the violent invaders and endorse a frightful moral relativism which already undermines Israel’s attempts to defend itself.

But the moral relativism between the IDF and the armed naval invaders, while unfortunate, is fully eclipsed by the offensive and indefensible moral relativism Secretary of State John Kerry offered this weekend in trying to soothe Erdogan’s ego. According to the Associated Press:

Kerry said he understood the anger and frustration of those Turks who lost friends and family in the raid. The former Massachusetts senator said last week’s Boston Marathon bombings made him acutely aware of the emotions involved.

“It affects the community, it affects the country. But going forward, you know, we have to find the best way to bring people together and undo these tensions and undo these stereotypes and try to make peace,” he said.

This was always a concern about putting Kerry in charge of diplomacy. Kerry possesses neither principle nor expertise, and so the odds of him saying something both daft and morally bankrupt are always high. Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon no doubt spoke for many in Israel when he responded:

“It is never helpful when a moral equivalency is made confusing terrorists with their victims,” Danon told The Times of Israel. “As our American friends were made all too aware once again last week, the only way to deal with the evils of terrorism [is] to wage an unrelenting war against its perpetrators wherever they may be,” he said.

The armed Turkish invaders Kerry has developed such sympathy for were on a ship funded by a terrorist organization with ties to Hamas and other jihadist groups seeking to challenge Israel’s navy in order to help Hamas. If they were victims at all, it was of their own violent ideology. Though we don’t know yet what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers to perpetrate the monstrous bombing they are believed to have carried out and the additional ones law enforcement officials believe they were planning, the biographical picture beginning to emerge paints at least the elder of the two as “increasingly militant” in his Muslim faith.

But whether the Tsarnaevs were inspired by Islamic radicalism at all is beside the point in the case of Kerry’s comments. The victims in Boston were victims of a brutal and murderous attack; the “victims” to whom Kerry compared them were in the act of carrying out their own attack. Kerry’s comments also put Israelis trying to contain a terrorist enclave next door on the same moral plane as those terrorists and their allies.

Perhaps Kerry misspoke. If not, his worldview is warped, dangerous, and dishonorable. The same administration officials who nudged Netanyahu to apologize to Erdogan should pay a visit to Kerry. The secretary of state owes a round of apologies thanks to his inauspicious start as America’s chief diplomat.

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The Age of Hope and Shame

What’s the difference between righteous and self-righteous? Last Wednesday, President Obama stood alongside victims of gun violence and spoke about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have expanded background checks for gun buyers. Obama’s insistence that America has seen “too many tragedies” of late is righteous (“characterized by uprightness or morality,” according to dictionary.com). But he went on to describe a moral split that posited on his side “those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence” and on the other, “those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe.” That, and his declaring opponents “shameful,” is self-righteous (“having or showing an exaggerated awareness of one’s own virtuousness or rights”).

There was never an open policy debate after the Sandy Hook shooting. There was only an inarticulate pledge to act. Little wonder nothing will be accomplished. And after Obama’s speech, there would still be no debate. Liberals echoed his self-righteousness through social-media memes. Because nothing says, “I sincerely care” like an infinitely clicked-on Photoshop collage of young victims captioned by a partisan message. 

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What’s the difference between righteous and self-righteous? Last Wednesday, President Obama stood alongside victims of gun violence and spoke about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have expanded background checks for gun buyers. Obama’s insistence that America has seen “too many tragedies” of late is righteous (“characterized by uprightness or morality,” according to dictionary.com). But he went on to describe a moral split that posited on his side “those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence” and on the other, “those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe.” That, and his declaring opponents “shameful,” is self-righteous (“having or showing an exaggerated awareness of one’s own virtuousness or rights”).

There was never an open policy debate after the Sandy Hook shooting. There was only an inarticulate pledge to act. Little wonder nothing will be accomplished. And after Obama’s speech, there would still be no debate. Liberals echoed his self-righteousness through social-media memes. Because nothing says, “I sincerely care” like an infinitely clicked-on Photoshop collage of young victims captioned by a partisan message. 

Liberals don’t have an exclusive claim on either child welfare or common sense. And they’re not the only ones who can point to horrifying realities and place blame on policies they don’t like. Take the conservative cause of shrinking the welfare state. It may not lend itself to the easy emotional shorthand of anti-gun legislation, but that’s because few are paying attention. Amid last week’s multiple nightmares, one could have missed a New York Times story headlined “More Children in Greece Are Going Hungry.” Published the same day Obama made his “shame” speech, the report by Liz Alderman describes Greek “children picking through school trash cans for food; needy youngsters asking playmates for leftovers; and an 11-year-old boy, Pantelis Petrakis, bent over with hunger pains.” This is the latest byproduct of the Greek disaster. The Times quotes Dr. Athena Linos, who heads a food-assistance NGO, as saying: “When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries.” Talk about shame.

The Greek collapse is a direct consequence of the unbridled welfare state. The country was brought down by nationalized healthcare, exorbitant pensions, early retirements, a massive public sector, and all the other mathematical impossibilities that progressives mistake for virtue. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous line, the Greeks ran out of other people’s money. The danger of the welfare state isn’t theoretical, and there’s a new generation of hungry Greek children to prove it.

Does that mean that those Americans who’ve been calling for the United States to follow the European social model don’t care about hungry children? No, they’re not monsters. Rather, they don’t see the connection between what they advocate and what’s unfolding—between what they think of as “welfare” and what’s actually its opposite. It would be unseemly and offensive, therefore, for leading conservatives to denounce big-spending liberals as shamefully indifferent to child suffering.   

Liberals, on the other hand, must shame their conservative opponents because emotion is nine-tenths of the liberal law, as post-Sandy Hook discussion shows. On the left, intentions dominate. Failed liberal policy could never be justified by a sober consideration of facts.

After the Boston terrorist attack progressives like Salon’s David Sirota “hoped” that the suspect would be a white American. Such musings put liberals on the high road of good intentions. No Islamists meant no “shameful” war against Islamists. But objective facts (outcome) shattered these hopes.

The Obama years are the years of hope and shame. That’s what’s left once you’ve hollowed out the space traditionally occupied by informed debate. Liberals, led by the president, merely hope that gun laws and background checks will stem gun violence. There’s no debating the merits. So when people disagree, it can only be attributed to shameful intentions, not thoughtful misgivings about effectiveness. Liberals hope that expanding the welfare state will do more good for more people. The facts of Europe don’t apply. So when conservatives disagree it’s because they’re shamefully indifferent to human suffering, not concerned about an unsustainable initiative. Obama hopes we’re no longer in a war on terror but engaged in a cleaner-sounding war on al-Qaeda. If you think a recent string of terrorism attempts in America demonstrates otherwise, shame on you. Without self-righteousness liberals have no case.

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The Boston Bombing and its Aftermath

The full meaning of the extraordinary drama of the last week–which began with the bombing of the Boston Marathon and ended with the death of one suspect and the capture of another–will take some time to unravel. Here are some preliminary thoughts on various aspects of the attack and the manhunt:

  • The FBI deserves considerable credit for the speed with which it managed to identify and hunt down Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who apparently planted the bomb. Quite a contrast from the bungled investigation of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing which first focused on security guard Richard Jewell, who was wrongly suspected of being the bomber. Even after Eric Rudolph was identified as the perpetrator it was another seven years before he was finally apprehended. The lightning speed of the marathon bombing investigation may be a tribute to the greater skill and experience that the FBI has gained in terrorism investigations since the 1990s–or it may be due simply to the ineptitude of the youthful bombers who made no attempt to leave the area and who drew attention to themselves by shooting an MIT police officer and carjacking a Mercedes.

The full meaning of the extraordinary drama of the last week–which began with the bombing of the Boston Marathon and ended with the death of one suspect and the capture of another–will take some time to unravel. Here are some preliminary thoughts on various aspects of the attack and the manhunt:

  • The FBI deserves considerable credit for the speed with which it managed to identify and hunt down Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who apparently planted the bomb. Quite a contrast from the bungled investigation of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing which first focused on security guard Richard Jewell, who was wrongly suspected of being the bomber. Even after Eric Rudolph was identified as the perpetrator it was another seven years before he was finally apprehended. The lightning speed of the marathon bombing investigation may be a tribute to the greater skill and experience that the FBI has gained in terrorism investigations since the 1990s–or it may be due simply to the ineptitude of the youthful bombers who made no attempt to leave the area and who drew attention to themselves by shooting an MIT police officer and carjacking a Mercedes.
  • The New York Police Department deserves considerable credit for foiling potentially even more deadly acts of terrorism such as the planned bombing of the city’s subway and of Times Square. In recent years it has become fashionable to criticize the NYPD for its intelligence-gathering among the Muslim community; it has been accused of infringing on civil liberties. In fact there is scant evidence that anyone’s liberties were trampled. There is considerable evidence that the NYPD’s highly effective intelligence gathering has kept the city safe. Other cities, including Boston, would do well to learn from the NYPD’s example.
  • The Tsarnaev brothers’ rampage will surely embolden immigration critics who are trying to block sensible, bipartisan legislation that would provide a path to legality for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. In fact the border-control measures being pushed by immigration proponents are utterly irrelevant to stopping such acts of terrorism–all they would do would be to interfere with Latin Americans who are moving here in search of a better life and, as Catholics, are unlikely recruits for Islamist terrorist groups. The Tsarnaevs were not, after all, here illegally–the problem is not with how they arrived but with how they developed once they arrived.
  • Many Americans, myself included, have explained the relative lack of domestic terrorism since 9/11 by pointing to our success in assimilating immigrants–something that we do better than Europe, where there is a much larger and more disaffected population of Muslim immigrants. I still think there is considerable explanatory power in this analysis, but we must realize that even American Muslims can be susceptible to the lure of extremism. The Tsarnaev brothers, as imperfectly assimilated immigrants, were similar to Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. The answer is not to stop immigration; it is to maintain our surveillance of potential extremists, as the NYPD has been doing, and to do a better job, if we can, of assimilating new arrivals.
  • The Russian government has a lot to answer for because of its brutal and incomplete pacification of Chechnya, the homeland of the brothers Tsarnaev. We don’t yet have all the details of how they became radicalized, but clearly outrage at the Russian brutality–the Red Army has killed more than 100,000 Chechens since the 1990s and turned Grozny into rubble–led them, like many of their countrymen, to embrace the radical doctrines of Islamist groups that have assumed the leading role in the anti-Russian resistance. Al-Qaeda and its ilk have found fertile ground among the Chechens, converting many of them to its Salafist creed which preaches hatred not just of Russia but of the United States and other infidel nations. The likely result of the marathon bombing will be to draw the U.S. and Russia closer together in fighting Chechen extremism, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the driving force behind Chechen terrorism is Russian oppression–even while recognizing that no amount of provocation can excuse attacks on innocents, especially innocents in a place like Boston that has no connection at all with the events of the Caucasus.
  • This terrible bombing has shattered our post-9/11 complacency. There has been a tendency to think that because Osama bin Laden has been killed and there has been no repeat of 9/11 that the threat from terrorism is overhyped. There have been calls to shutter Guantanamo’s detention facility, to stop renditions of suspects, to scale back interrogation and surveillance of suspects, to stop drone strikes and even to repeal the authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda. We do not yet know if the Tsarnaevs had contact with any terrorist network but, whatever its origins, their attack shows that the threat from terrorism remains real–and that it is not only our airliners that are in the terrorists’ crosshairs. We cannot afford to let down our guard or to repeal the measures that have kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11. Indeed we may need to step up security around “soft targets,” which abound in our large and open country.

Those, as noted, are my initial thoughts. I imagine there will be more to say once we find out more about the background of the bomber brothers and especially about any links they might have with terrorist organizations. In this regard the extended trip that Tamerlan took to Russia in 2012, when he reportedly visited the Caucasus, is particularly important and suggestive.

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