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Not all atrocities are created equal

In a recent post, I suggested that the New York Times, in an article citing prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as an example of people commiting evil acts, might have done at least as well to consider the U.N. rape scandal in the Congo. However, I never tried to explain why it hadn't.

Now, Arthur Chrenkoff answers the question of why U.N. officials raping hundreds of young Congolese girls and boys just doesn't seem to be stirring up the sort of white-hot outrage inspired by the Abu Ghraib photos:

A combination of four widely-held beliefs will conspire to keep the fate of Congo and many other places from generating sufficient levels of international outrage:

American misdeeds are the worst in the world;

There are worse misdeeds in the world, but that's to be expected of others, so who cares? now back to American misdeeds;

American misdeeds are the most offensive because America holds itself to a higher moral standard than others;

American misdeeds deserve the most attention because by publicizing them within the Western world, you actually have the greatest chance of effecting change. (This is a sort of backhand, and often unintended, compliment to the strength of the American political system.)
Chrenkoff's last two points, in particular, suggest that those who single out American scandals for criticism are guilty of the common fallacy that Steven Den Beste called "searching under the streetlight":
A cop finds a drunk man in a parking lot late at night, searching the ground under the only street light in that parking lot.

He asks what the guy is doing, and the drunk replies that he dropped his car keys and is looking for them.

Asked where he was when he dropped the keys, the drunk waves towards a car in the darkness.

Asked why he's searching under the street light, he says that if the keys are actually over in the darkness, he'd never find them anyway.
As Chrenkoff observes, it's easy to find fault with America, because it implicitly claims to be setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. And, because American political institutions are comparatively quick and efficient in responding to problems, criticizing America is likely to yield tangible results.

I'd add two more reasons: Since America is the most powerful nation on earth, even the most trifling allegations made against it draw lots of attention, giving protesters more bang for their buck. And weaker countries are only too eager to undermine America's moral authority by calling attention to its flaws.

For those reasons, even if the worst atrocities are happening somewhere else, critics prefer to search under the bright streetlight — or, more accurately, spotlight — shining on America.

And rapists prey on African children in the darkness.


Anonymous said...

I 've called you on this streetlight thing before. It's a good joke, so I understand why you want to use it, but as an analogy to the situation you're discussing, it fails completely.

In order for the joke to be funny, 1)there is only one set of keys, and 2)they're not under the streetlight. But there are plenty of misdeeds to be found everywhere. Abu Ghraib, torture memos, "extraordinary rendition"--all sorts of things are being found under this particular streetlight. If the drunk guy keeps finding keys, maybe he's not so dumb to be looking where the light is better.

Like most on the left, I pay more attention to US misdeeds because I hold my country to a higher moral standard, and because as a citizen, US misdeeds are partially my responsibility.

A better analogy than your streetlight joke would be that some of us are focusing more on cleaning our own house rather than bitching about how messy other people's houses are. 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

By the way, I posted a longer response  to this on my blog.

I shouldn't have to say this, but I of course agree that what happened in the Congo was vile and unforgivable. But the reason it was not used in the Times  article was not any anti-American bias, but simply that the author needed to make the point that evil is something that normal Americans are capable of, that we can't simply write it off as something only those inexplicable foreigners do.

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

Hey, I tried to post on your blog but got an error message...

Anyway, glad I inspired you to start blogging again.

I don't mean the street light story to be a joke; it's more of a parable and I think it's pretty accurate.

Put into plain English, some people prefer to avoid true challenges and play it safe, even if it means giving up the possibility for real accomplishment.

Sure, you can achieve results by protesting U.S. abuses. But the U.S. abuses are not the worst ones out there, and they're likely to be fixed even without any action on your part, by America's own feedback systems and political processes.

Focus on the Congo, and you might well end up helping more people and doing more good. But you'll have to work for it. The Congolese media, justice system, and politicians will not do the heavy lifting for you.

In fact, it might take overwhelming force (or the threat thereof) to accomplish anything -- which is something only the American military can supply.

That's why I get particularly upset when U.S. troops are singled out for extra scrutiny: they're actually changing things in the world (like Saddam's rule) that no other group could, so cut them some slack. (I'm not saying to forgive any misconduct by U.S. troops, but neither do I think such misconduct should be the primary focus of protestors worldwide.)

Maybe a better analogy would be to say that correcting American abuses is like climbing Mt. Fuji. It's a famous mountain, there's a well-worn path, anyone can do it, and thousands do. But reaching the topis no big deal. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

Tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, is no drama queen’s play for the spotlight. Corrupt rape, or corrupt war, which is worse? To those opposed to these actions, well it’s K2. The Europeans can’t climb it. And those who think current U.S. policy is folly here in country, have no real power for four more years. The mountain is too treacherous to even allow dissent.

I don't know if you've noticed G.B. but I’ve not agreed with many things you write.
But I may come around on this, since it is the most important issue of our generation. This war is costly, is it worth the cost? You’re the true believer here. I’m coming from being strongly opposed, to maybe seeing it is a necessary thing.
It’s interesting to speculate: The Bush machine could do everything right, I mean do perfect, and things don't turn out well in Iraq. Or they could bungle and just fuck up everything they touch, and the Iraqi people put it together somehow themselves. But of course that's not logical, it's not a bungle if it gets put together. So what it boils down to, my instinct, things could turn out bad, even if U.S. policy is all good intentions, perfectly executed. Do you understand why some non-pacifists haven’t supported the war?

The irony, this would make the U.S. the number one abuser, just like people opposed to the war have contended. Our evil would be the same evil as Viet Nam, our good intentions ironically turned to cause more suffering, more hatred then it cured. You who are pure in your ideals would then be just another supporter to unjustified war. It's a strange war, unlike WW2; unjustified if we lose, but just if we succeed. The U.S. has earned its place in the spotlight. We command it, the question is, can Bush’s performance, win an Oscar?

Posted by fasteddie

Anonymous said...

The atrocities in the Congo are one of those rare cases where vocal criticism can make a difference since the perpetrators are part of an international organization that responds to public opinion, and I agree that more attention should be paid to them for that reason. I just question your automatic assumtion that anti-Americanism is the reason for the lack of attention.

they're actually changing things in the world (like Saddam's rule) that no other group could, so cut them some slack. 
I believe that it is precisely because of our unique position in the world that we can't afford to cut them any slack at all. If we're going to have any legitimacy in interfering with the sovereignty of other nations, it is reasonable that we be held to a higher moral standard than others.(Granted, the UN needs to be held to that higher standard as well.) 

Posted by Big Ben

Anonymous said...

WASHINGTON, March 15 - At least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials. first paragraph NY Times news article. Umm first you belittle the torture as akin to Frat boy games, then to your credit you backed away from that statement. Can you justify murder too? And this is totally outside whether it was proper to go into Iraq or not. Unfolding history is proving your calloused opinions wanting. Best regards eddie 

Posted by fasteddie



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