Politics & Policy

Shameful Attacks

Bill Bennett stresses our morality…and pays the price.

In the course of a free-wheeling conversation so common on talk-format programs, Bill Bennett made a minor point that was statistically and logically unassailable, but that touched a third rail–namely, the nexus between race and crime–within the highly charged context of abortion policy.

He emphatically qualified his remarks from the standpoint of morality. Then he ended with the entirely valid conclusion that sweeping generalizations are unhelpful in making major policy decisions.

That he was right in this seems to matter little. Bennett is being fried by the PC police and the ethnic-grievance industry, which have disingenuously ripped his minor point out of its context in a shameful effort to paint him as a racist. He’s about as bigoted as Santa Claus.

Here’s what happened. In the course of his Morning in America radio show on Wednesday, Bennett engaged a caller who sought to view the complexities of Social Security solvency through the narrow lens of abortion, an explosive but only tangentially relevant issue. Specifically, the caller contended that if there had not been so many abortions since 1973, there would be millions more living people paying into the Social Security System, and perhaps the system would be solvent.

Bennett, typically well-informed, responded with skepticism over this method of argument by making reference to a book he had read, which had made an analogous claim: namely, that it was the high abortion rate which was responsible for the overall decline in crime. The former Education secretary took pains to say that he disagreed with this theory, and then developed an argument for why we should resist “extensive extrapolations” from minor premises (like the number of abortions) in forming major conclusions about complex policy questions.

It was in this context that Bennett remarked: “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could–if that were your sole purpose–you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Was he suggesting such a thing? Was he saying that such a thing should even be considered in the real world? Of course not. His whole point was that such considerations are patently absurd, and thus he was quick to add: “That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do.”

Bennett’s position, clearly and irrefutably, is that you cannot have tunnel vision, especially on something as emotionally charged as abortion, in addressing multifaceted problems. It is almost always the case that problems, even serious ones, could be minimized or eliminated if you were willing to entertain severe solutions. Such solutions, though, are morally and ethically unacceptable, whatever the validity of their logic. The lesson to be drawn is not that we can hypothetically conceive of the severe solutions but that we resolutely reject them because of our moral core.

This is a bedrock feature of American law and life. We could, for example, dramatically reduce crimes such as robbery and rape by making those capital offenses. We don’t do it because such a draconian solution would be offensive to who we are as a people. But it is no doubt true that if we were willing to check our morality at the door, if the only thing we allowed ourselves to focus on were the reduction of robbery and rape, the death penalty would do the trick.

We are currently at war with Islamo-fascists, and our greatest fear is another domestic attack that could kill tens of thousands of Americans. The attacks we have suffered to this point have been inflicted, almost exclusively, by Muslim aliens from particular Arabic and African countries. Would it greatly reduce the chance of another domestic attack if we deported every non-American Muslim from those countries? Of course it would–how could it not? But it is not something that we should or would consider doing. It would be a cure so much worse than the disease that it would sully us as a people, while hurting thousands of innocent people in the process.

The salient thing here is the moral judgment. But, to be demonstrated compellingly, the moral judgment requires a dilemma that pits values against values. Remarkably, Bennett is being criticized for being able to frame such a dilemma–which was wholly hypothetical–but given no credit for the moral judgment–which was authentically his.

Statistics have long been kept on crime, breaking it down in various ways, including by race and ethnicity. Some identifiable groups, considered as a group, commit crime at a rate that is higher than the national rate.

Blacks are such a group. That is simply a fact. Indeed, our public discourse on it, even among prominent African Americans, has not been to dispute the numbers but to argue over the causes of the high rate: Is it poverty? Breakdown of the family? Undue police attention? Other factors–or some combination of all the factors? We argue about all these things, but the argument always proceeds from the incontestable fact that the rate is high.

The rate being high, it is an unavoidable mathematical reality that if the number of blacks, or of any group whose rate outstripped the national rate, were reduced or eliminated from the national computation, the national rate would go down.

But Bennett’s obvious point was that crime reduction is not the be-all and end-all of good policy. You would not approve of something you see as despicable–such as reducing an ethnic population by abortion–simply because it would have the incidental effect of reducing crime.

Abortion, moreover, is a grave moral issue in its own right. It merits consideration on its own merits, wholly apart from its incidental effects on innumerable matters–crime rate and social security solvency being just two.

“[T]hese far-out, these far-reaching … extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky,” Bennett concluded. It was a point worth making, and it could not have been made effectively without a “far-out” example that highlighted the folly. Plus he was right, which ought to count for something even in what passes for today’s media critiques.

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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