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A Question For Those Who Care

12/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Amitai Etzioni Professor of international relations, George Washington University

Public voices that are often raised (frequently for very good reasons!) to criticize many of the policies of the Bush Administration (and Israeli policies in dealing with the Palestinians), are mum about atrocities committed by extremist Muslims. I wonder why we do not hear a peep from these voices when a 13 year old girl is stoned to death for the "sin" of having been raped, as just happened in Somalia. There are good people who are concerned about the pain inflicted on those executed in the United States during the last minutes of their lives by the chemicals they are injected with--a valid concern--but why are these same voices strangely mum when they learn about the particularly prolonged, painful, agonizing death of a child?

Nor did I hear from feminists about the special insult that emanates from blaming the victim of rape for having committed a sin. Or, from anybody about the Taliban who behead their countrymen on buses in Afghanistan --countrymen on their way to visit family or start a new job-- to show that they are in control and not the Karzai government, or to make some other such point.

I am told that public intellectuals refrain from criticizing these Somali and Taliban barbarians (I can practically see some of my colleagues raising their eyebrows as high as they go for my use of such a "harsh" word) because they believe that these killers cannot be reached. "Why waste one's breath?" I hear the otherwise silent public intellectuals whispering. In contrast, they say, condemning Americans (and Israelis) may yield some good results.

I do not doubt that this position is half-true. Roundly condemning Bush's policies surely was one factor in bringing us such a dramatic change during the recent presidential election. And one cannot but hope that such criticism will have a similar salutary effect on the forthcoming Israeli elections. But is that a reason to ignore atrocities committed by extremist Muslims?

Nor should one ignore that judging what is right merely by its consequences is a very inadequate measure. If one refrains from doing good or speaking truth to evil (another word that makes some progressives shake in their boots but is here completely appropriate) because it may not have the desired outcomes, half of morality will have to be shut down. In evaluating whether the time is right to raise our moral voices, we ought to take into account intentions, and not just results. Speak up, first of all, because it is the right thing to do. Moreover, consequences typically cannot be anticipated with any degree of assurance anyhow.

Furthermore, it is far from clear that condemning atrocities in no uncertain terms, disregarding who commits them, will have no effect. Yemen, for instance, recently introduced some reforms, in part due to global pressures. When I visited Iran, I found them surprisingly keen to win the approval of outsiders, and one reason Libya came in from the cold was that its support for terrorism was widely condemned. Also, the proper outrage enforces the norms that prevent others from even thinking of going down this horrible course. And, just as our silence discourages moderate Muslims, our furor encourages them to speak up. We may well find some allies among those of the thousand or so spectators to the stoning in Somalia who have already protested. We should let them know they command our support.

Finally, clear transnational norms that condemn--and there is never too much reiteration--savage behavior are the foundation for charging those who stone and behead people with crimes against humanity. Such norms make them fair candidates for trial before the International Criminal Court, an institution I do not believe they are looking forward to facing.

There all kinds of outrages committed in many parts. Some claim that we need a sort of economy of moral voices; we cannot criticize all bad acts, because they are so common; that if we so proceed--we will end up debasing our moral currency. Fair enough. However, stoning and beheading innocent people tops the list. If these savage crimes do not make us speak up, in no uncertain terms, what will?

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007) www.securityfirstbook.com

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