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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Slippery slope

Ta Nehisi Coates has a post up (The Abyss Gazes Back) about being uninterested in the debate over whether or not Bin Laden's killing was legal. A couple of excerpts:
There's been a lively debate going on across the net about the legality of killing Osama Bin Laden, in terms of both American and international law. The debate is necessary, intelligent and important. And I do not care. 
I write a lot about the problem of stripping humanity, of othering, and of making monsters of men. I loved The Looming Tower because Lawrence Wright refused to other Al Qaeda. Instead he chronicled all of the group's evil acts, detailed American complicity, and did it so well that you were in the head of the terrorist. You could, all at once, condemn the evil and see how you might come to be its perpetrator. Yet now I find myself conjuring monsters and rejecting the mask--I am unable to consider Bin Laden as part of the human family. 
This is dangerous. 
One of the motivating beliefs behind this blog is that people are people, that tags like "madman," "evil" and even "terrorist" are, very often, escape hatches which allow us to avoid the hard work of understanding the evil encoded in all of us. Often I argue that slaveholders\Confederates\whoever must be seen as humans.

I mentioned to someone recently that, while I understand why I *should* care whether or not Bin Laden received proper burial rites, I really just don't. The man showed a deeply ingrained and consistent disrespect for the lives of others, and he certainly didn't seem to care whether or not *their* bodies were treated with respect, or in accordance with their religious beliefs. I admitted without hesitation that this is not a tenable moral position. Now, this is a thorny one for me, because I really don't feel very strongly about how human remains should be treated. But I believe wholeheartedly that our various and intricate strictures for dealing with our dead are about the living, and that we should not show disrespect to those living who maintain the importance of death and burial rites in our treatment of the dead. And I am refusing to extend that consideration to Bin Laden's remains. I am unwilling to see this as an issue about the living - those who have objected to the body's disposal. Instead, I see it as asking me to care whether Bin Laden would have approved of the manner in which his corpse was disposed, and I simply cannot. If I'm rigorous and honest in my thinking, what I am basically saying that I do not consider Bin Laden human enough for me to care whether his remains were treated with the dignity and respect with which I believe human remains should be treated, even if we only treat them that way because the living will be offended if we don't. Is my lack of human concern and religious respect,  a moral failure on my part? Yes, it probably is. I honestly believe, for example, that it is just not ok to torture people, even if they're "really bad people." To do so is to become less human. Is it dangerous? Certainly. It is a slippery slope, to start qualifying whose humanity you're willing and able to see.

It is such a scary thing when it happens to you, when your principles become alleged and incidental, when you lose interest in the debate. It is so very dangerous to make exceptions. It is so very dangerous to go cold.
I've been trying to rekindle the fire of my humanity, my empathy. But it's cold in this case, and I don't think there's any way to think myself out of that. So I have to wonder what it means about me, that I can think it was wrong to celebrate in the streets over Bin Laden's death, but have no problem with the fact that he was killed, and no issue with the disposal of his remains. Certainly it means that my ethical boundaries are as inconsistent as others'. And then what? Is that something I should look to fix, or simply an unavoidable part of my humanness?

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