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Post Selective Moral Indignation about History's Atrocities
Created by John Eipper on 03/20/17 3:41 AM

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Selective Moral Indignation about History's Atrocities (Timothy Brown, USA, 03/20/17 3:41 am)

For me, ideologically selective moral indignation is profoundly immoral.

In Vietnam I saw atrocity after atrocity committed by the Viet Cong--a baby that had been roasted over open fire, its pregnant mother's abdomen sliced open and her fetus shoved into her mouth and held there until she suffocated to death, her village chief husband then slowly dismembered in front of the villagers as a warning against cooperating with the government. What I almost never saw in the European or American press was any reporting on the VC's atrocities.

In Thailand I saw innocent children whose arms and legs had been deliberately broken by kidnappers, bound in place until they were permanently crippled so they could beg for money more effectively, used them as street beggars until they no longer could be exploited, at which point they simply killed them and then kidnapped more children and crippled them, too.

In post-Somoza Nicaragua, after "peace" had been restored and the Contras and their tens of thousands of peasant and tribal Indian supporters had returned to their milpas (minifundias), the Organization of American States documented the killing of almost a thousand former Contras or members of their families by Government military or police. But, unlike during the war when reports of these events were given to human rights organizations that had spent decades demonizing the Contras as monsters, drug addicts, perverts, murders and worse, they ignored them.

At the 2001 WAIS conference on "Globalization and its Discontents," a small group of human rights activists, excited by what I had said, asked me to join them in their cause. I gave them my email address and invited them to contact me. Three weeks later I received a message asking me to join their campaign to have former Chilean President Pinochet indicted for war crimes committed while he was President. I immediately agreed and asked that, in turn, they join me in a parallel campaign to do the same about then Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro, since thousands of former Contras or their families had been killed by the Nicaraguan Police or army while Chamorro was both its President and Minister of Defense. I never heard from them again.

I could go on about incidents while I was stationed in or working from Washington on incidents in Somoza Nicaragua, Franco Spain, Stroessner Paraguay, Uruguay, Suriname, the Philippines, Thailand--I could go on. But ideologically selective moral indignation seems to be de rigueur among so many, so why bother?

PS:  As a Westerner, I'm amused by the outrage so many express about how Americans treated the indigenous tribes during their westward expansion. True, it was sometimes bloody and often judged by those who were never there as excessively violent. I'm always surprised when people believe they know history better than Americans do. To me that's just more ideologically selective moral indignation. Why? Because before the Europeans arrived, tribe after tribe of Native Americans had over the centuries been subjugated, enslaved or simply wiped out by other tribes. Please don't assert that, unlike us Gringos, until the Spanish arrived in today's Latin America, all the region's tribes had lived at peace with one another. Such profound ignorance of the real history of the pre-Conquest Americas is no excuse.

And why is their so little talk about the hundreds of millions that died during the Soviet, Chinese, Khmer Rouge and others in their efforts to build a more just and prosperous world. And lets not even think about the Mongols or Romans and on and on deeper and deeper into the realities of history.

JE comments: I agree with Tim Brown on all his points except the rather nihilistic "why bother." Since there have always been atrocities and probably always will be, does this mean we should remain silent about any given atrocity? This discussion began with Enrique Torner's post on the mass execution of Dakotas in 1862. Why should there be a problem with the US remembering less-than-rosy elements of its past? It's healthy to confront the unsavory acts of one's ancestors, if for no other reason than not to repeat them.

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  • Thoughts on Selective Moral Indignation (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 03/20/17 12:00 PM)
    I agree with Tim Brown's analysis of history's atrocities, and agree with him about the evil of selective moral outrage. I do have a bone to pick on one little thing, however--these things are not relative.

    I mean--just because American Indians wiped each other out from time to time, does not in the least make it OK that we wiped them out. Just because the Viet Cong committed unspeakable atrocities, does not make it OK that we carpet-bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972, killing thousands of civilians (including the grandmother of a good friend of mine, who was working as a nurse in a hospital which we bombed flat, which makes it rather more personal for me than a footnote in a book), or indeed that we were in Vietnam at all in the first place.

    Selective moral outrage works both ways--every American child learns in detail about the depredations of the Germans in WWII, particularly, the Holocaust. But we hardly heard a word about our own crimes, like the intentional destruction of residential neighborhoods of German cities, particularly by fire-bombing such as in Hamburg and Dresden, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people--primarily women, children, and old people, as military-aged men were mostly with their units and not at home. The Holocaust does not indeed make that OK.

    As every child learns as probably the very first principle of morality--two wrongs does not make a right.

    JE comments:  Every child learns this, but society has always struggled with it--blood feuds, Old Testament wrath, retribution, revenge served cold, eye for an eye, tit for tat...

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    • Selective Moral Indignation, Revisited (Tor Guimaraes, USA 03/23/17 1:33 PM)
      I completely agree with Tim Brown (20 March) that in many cases "ideologically selective moral indignation is profoundly immoral." Except when the moral indignation is really self-judging and in search of the truth, not seeking to place blame on anyone.

      The really unfortunate thing is that we humans throughout history continuously seem to be quite fond of showing indignation regarding their rivals' misbehavior while neglecting to control our own behavior and speech. As Cameron Sawyer correctly reminded us, "two wrongs do not make a right." Nevertheless, many talk and behave as if that were not true, only to compound the problem and contribute to a world with increasing social, political, economic dysfunction.

      Because two wrongs do not make a right, as Cameron stated, "just because American Indians wiped each other out from time to time, does not in the least make it OK that we wiped them out. Just because the Viet Cong committed unspeakable atrocities, does not make it OK that we carpet-bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972, killing thousands of civilians."

      On the other hand, human atrocities seem to vary widely in terms of their human impact and abhorrence. For example, an atrocity where a group of millions of innocent productive citizens suddenly become the dictator's scapegoats, and are condemned to extermination, should be considered as a much greater atrocity than the incineration of the innocent inhabitants of an entire city from this same country which is engaged in total war and doing the same thing. Similarly, an atrocity where the world's militarily most powerful nation invades a backward Asian nation of farmers (fighting for decades for their independence from foreign invaders), uses their complete air domination to defoliate the hell out of the countryside, and carpet-bomb and napalm at will, is hardly in the same category with relatively focused cases of unspeakable atrocities by the enemy against its own people accused of supporting such an invader. Both sides are wrong, but these atrocities are clearly not equivalent.

      Contrary to Tim Brown and Cameron Sawyer's opinions, selective moral outrage seems justifiable in such cases.

      JE comments:  Should we place moral outrage directed at oneself or one's own nation on a higher moral plane?  Physician, heal thyself and all that?

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      • Selective Moral Indignation: Brazil and East Africa (Robert Gibbs, USA 03/24/17 3:04 AM)
        In Tor Guimaraes's post of March 23rd, he seems to be skipping the reality of Tim Brown's and others' critiques. War, slaughter, and genocide are not just occurring in, or a monopoly of, Western civilization.

        They are and were a part of every culture in the world, even his beloved Brazil--aside from the corruption, there is a slaughter and enslavement going on right now of Amazon basin Indians. Then there is the West African slave trade.  Yes it happened, and Western governments put an end to it in the costly and deadly anti-slave patrols in the 19th century. It is not an excuse, just a fact.

        There was also a very lucrative and deadly East African slave trade, which was in many ways deadlier to Africans than the West African slave trade. It is a trade that most scholars and others are completely ignorant of and never want to discuss. In some cases it is not allowed to be discussed. In West Africa, most if not all the slaves were prisoners of the various internal wars, and instead of killing them the warring tribe sold them. It is perhaps true that some of these wars were started to gain slaves for the West, mostly going to Brazil first. But in East Africa the Arab traders would raid villages (cutting out the middle-men and killing what they could not carry to the great trading posts of Madagascar and Mombasa made fortunes off the slave traded that sent slaves throughout the east after castrating the men and executing women who got pregnant. And least we forget, Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962 and went for another form of slavery such as is practiced now on Filipinos and Bangladeshis to name a few.

        The thing is no one, but no one, wants to ever discuss (and some refuse to discuss) this nefarious traffic in East Africa.

        What I am arguing is in this world from atheists, Buddhists to Catholics--all of us have sins. So are sins only in the eyes of the beholder or years after the fact? Native Americans slaughtered European immigrants and the immigrants slaughtered Native Americans. It is not a particular Western phenomena. This is in the past and nothing can change it. Today we have the reintroduction of chattel slavery and only a very few bother to discuss it, let alone try to end it.

        So Tor, there are still places for you to demonstrate your indignity without going to the unchangeable past. You might even go to Brazil and try to protect the Amazon Basin natives? You know you could leave your comfortable surroundings and really do something and not just point fingers at safe targets.

        In the meantime you might also consider what Western civilization has given to the world. There really are values worth having. We may not be perfect, but we have done a lot for the world.

        Herodotus once observed that "if all nations of the world were to bring their sins to one spot in hopes to exchange them for others--once there they would be happy to return with their own sin."

        JE comments:  Or how about this one:  "Illness strikes men when they are exposed to change."

        Robert Gibbs is wrong that no one is combating modern-day slavery.  It just happens to be "Not for Sale" week at Adrian College, and our very vibrant chapter of this anti-trafficking group has been organizing events around campus.  Among other initiatives, they have raised money for a home in Thailand for children rescued from slavery.  Our chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Chris Momany, sponsors the group and has done much to keep alive the abolitionist spirit of the College's founding years.


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        • Righting the World's Wrongs (Tor Guimaraes, USA 03/25/17 12:00 PM)
          For some reason Robert Gibbs (March 24th) assumes that I don't realize "war, slaughter, and genocide are not just occurring in, or [are] a monopoly of, Western civilization. [And that] they are and were a part of every culture in the world."

          The misunderstanding is probably my fault, because I tend to use illustrations related to my adopted, beloved and most powerful USA, and my Western culture which has dominated mankind for the last many decades. I know we are not the only evildoers in the world, but we are in the best position to change humanity's stupid behaviors, to set a higher standard for mankind, to rise above all other past great civilizations by doing good, not evil. After studying the incredible rise and fall of Nazi Germany, it dawned on me that if Hitler had embraced science instead of mythology, peace rather than military conquest, humanity rather then racial superiority, so much misery, death, and destruction would have been avoided. Also mankind would probably have been much safer today colonizing other planets rather than wallowing in world mass misery and ignorance as we increasingly are.

          Robert is right that native Americans have slaughtered each other before we did, Genghis Khan was a nasty person, Africans were direct participants in the US slavery enterprise before white Americans killed each other over it, while the English fought against it. I have also heard that some Brazilian farmers have parachuted food to the Amazon Indians a few times, followed by explosives which were detonated to wipe them out. Yes, everyone should know that all cultures, organized religions, and countries have historically committed evil deeds. The sad thing is, despite our rosy self-assessments, we humans have not improved much in the last 10,000 years. Our capacity for destruction has grown dramatically but our self (personal, group, nation, culture, world) assessment, our discipline, our conscience, and our behavior seems to be getting worse.

          Last, I accept Robert's criticism: "So Tor, there are still places for you to demonstrate your indignity without going to the unchangeable past. You might even go to Brazil and try to protect the Amazon Basin natives? You know you could leave your comfortable surroundings and really do something and not just point fingers at safe targets."

          I admit to not having done enough to change the world except expressing my opinions. Indeed I don't know what else to do and am frustrated. On the other hand, I hope Robert is gracious enough to tell me what is his reaction to these problems. So Robert, how have you demonstrated your indignation about mankind's evil deeds? Have you ever left your comfortable surroundings and really done something?

          JE comments:  As an officer in the US Army, Bob Gibbs was a part of several UN and NATO peacekeeping forces.  He is a modest guy, so I'll speak on his behalf:  Bob has risked his own skin on numerous occasions to save defenseless people from certain slaughter.

          Tor Guimaraes gets me thinking, too.  What have I done to stop humanity's stupid behaviors?

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  • Moral Indignation over the Years: A Personal Journey (Robert Whealey, USA 03/20/17 12:45 PM)
    I read the accounts of Timothy Brown's "selective atrocities" (March 20th) as a morality tale. In 1937 at age 7, I heard on the radio about Japanese atrocities in China. My father also told me about his wartime experiences on the French Front from September 1918 to September 1919 as a Buck Private. However, from the 1930s to December 1941, he sheltered me by selecting his "good times" as well as his grim duties, ten miles behind the front lines. He became a dedicated Isolationist in 1919 and resented FDR's "road to war" in 1940.

    I learned a different history from a moral point of view from 1951 to 1963 at the Universities of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. I became morally a Truman Democrat in April of 1951, when he fired General Douglas MacArthur for expanding the Korean War to China. Timothy Brown had a different list of atrocities and a moral justification.

    My study of World War I recorded hundreds of atrocities by all of the Great Powers, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, and the Ottoman Turks. The American War, 1917-Armistice Day, was a "Child's Crusade."

    In 1951 sheltered at the University of Pennsylvania, I took a course on the French War in Indochina. I became a dedicated anti-imperialist and predicted that the French would lose. I knew in August 1964 that Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a fraud. Senator Fulbright himself was fooled temporarily by LBJ's trick, but in April of 1965 he denounced LBJ's "imperial war."

    Sometime in the 1990s, I had a Friday lunch with a retired group of academics: Dr. J, who never had any experience in the military and never took a history course, was a dedicated atheist who blamed Christianity for all the wars of history.

    I stopped him! "I don't believe that. Have you ever heard of the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao? If we look back in time, how about Tamerlane, who reigned from 1370-1405, The Ottoman Turks and Genghis Khan?"

    LBJ's sense of history began at the Alamo and stopped when he was elected to the Senate from Texas in 1948. As President, he was forced to learn some new history from Sen. J William Fulbright and Sen. Mike Mansfield. Johnson did not believe any of the history as recorded by JFK or RFK. But unlike Richard Nixon, LBJ decided to leave the Vietnamese quagmire in February 1968. He did not have the audacity as he came closer to September and October 1968 to institute the draft of the National Guard.

    Nixon continued the war for four more years and was finally forced out of office by a combination of factors, Henry Kissinger, The New York Times and Washington Post, the Democratic Senatorial doves, who had grown since, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the Watergate Hotel break-in.

    So selective atrocities can be recorded by many soldiers in many wars. As a free-thinking Christian Liberal, Democratic Socialist and economist, I have to think that every politician and soldier who has been involved in combat has to make his own moral choice. There have been many good Christians and many bad Christians, good Jews and bad Jews, throughout Western Civilization.

    JE comments:  Robert, did your father remain in France all the way until September 1919?  If so, I hope you can reach back in your memory and tell us some of his postwar stories.  Among other things, he survived the Great Influenza that killed even more millions than the Great War that preceded it.

    And what historical perspective on Indochina was presented in the early 1950s?  I'd be fascinated to learn more about the U Penn course.

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