Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Morality, schadenfreude, and the catch-22

I've been reading plenty of blog postings about how poorly conservatives have responded to the George Tiller murder in Kansas a couple weeks ago. There have been some vile responses, essentially praising the killer, it's true. But I notice that many on "my" side of the political spectrum are quite eager to criticize those conservatives who seem to praise with faint condemnation. You know, those folks who insist that they are appalled at murder, but let's not forget the evils this doctor was committing, etc. etc. If you can't condemn a killing without reminding us how much the victim deserved it, some reply, then you're really apologizing for and promoting murder.

I don't buy it. We're asking too much of the average person to not feel at least a twinge of conflict if an evil deed removes a person whom they also thought was evil. I say this because I know just how I would feel if the situation were reversed.

Thought experiment: think of someone that you believe has done great evil and justice doesn't appear in the offing. In my, case I tend to picture a certain avid fisherman from one of the mountain states, who recently held great power and abused it horribly, to our great shame, and bears a great responsibility for at least tens of thousands of needless deaths, perhaps even more. I won't mention his name.

How would I feel if this person were assassinated? I would be horrified, I would expect the assassin to face the full penalty of the law, and I would fear the political and cultural damage that might follow from someone believing he should become JJ&E. But it would be hard - really really hard - for me to feel sorry for the SOB. And no matter how much I deplored the act, the fact that I didn't consider this SOB to be any kind of innocent victim, or any tragic loss to the world, would probably show through.* In other words, I don't think I would perform any better than most pro-life Christians have after the murder of George Tiller.

So if they're evil for feeling conflicted about this murder, then I'm just as evil, because I know I would also feel conflicted in a comparable situation. Or, maybe we're not evil. We're just not so good that our abstract horror at murder would completely overcome our relief at the loss of a Bad Guy. Maybe Gandalf or Dumbledore, or some other fictional character, could do it. Not most of us real people.

So give it a rest and understand that people's motives and feelings aren't pure. Same goes with George Tennet claiming that Dick Cheney actually wants a terrorist attack on the US. That's unfair, every bit as unfair as saying that everyone who opposed the invasion wanted America to fail in Iraq. Even though there's a tiny bit of truth - that truth that when we say, "I hope I'm wrong," we still don't really want to be wrong. We're people and we're just that way. It's unfair to expect a whole lot more.

* On the other hand, this person has family and friends just like a good person would, and the pain they would feel is not one whit less than it would be if they had loved someone I thought more deserving. I hope I would remember that.

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