The worst part about being a prosecutor was the defendants’ kids. Wives and parents would get to me, too, but nothing was worse than the kids — especially the young teenagers, when they’re just old enough to understand what is happening, when the idea of who dad is gets overrun by the reality of who dad is.
A prosecutor’s task is to paint a convincing portrait of reality, which sometimes meant revealing the kid’s hero as the ruthless scoundrel he really was. As a human being, it sometimes made me sick to do it — sick and angry, because the ruthless scoundrel would never be above using the kids. He’d doll up his attractive, loving family and seat them in the front row, where they could tug at the jury’s heartstrings and stare plaintively at the witnesses — as if it were the testimony, not the conduct, that made dad a fraud, a dope-dealer, a mafioso, or a terrorist.
I had idolized my father, and I’d lost him when I was a young teenager. As a Christian, I ached for what those kids had to be feeling as they watched me prove their fathers were monsters that juries should convict and judges send to jail for decades — sometimes for life. But as a public official, I didn’t give a damn. As part of government, my job was not to feel but to function. It wasn’t that my feelings weren’t real. It was that they had no place in the governmental duty that has to be performed if we are to flourish as a civil society.
I’ve thought about that dichotomy a lot the last few days, ever since Pete Wehner, the former Bush administration speechwriter and policy adviser, chastised me in the pages of Commentary. Pete is exercised because, in a column last week about the increasingly dubious U.S. military expedition in Afghanistan, I bluntly asked, “Why should we give a damn about the Afghan people?”
Wehner’s argument is presumptuous — unabashedly so. Putting on his clairvoyant’s hat, he peers into my brain and finds I am being “intentionally provocative” in advancing an “argument, presumably . . . that Afghanistan is an impoverished country located on the other side of the world, inhabited by people who are not worthy of our concern, let alone our care. If the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan and returned to their barbaric practices should be [sic] a matter of complete indifference to us.”
Maybe Wehner would not write such foolish things if he had been with me in Nairobi eleven years ago, after a jihadist bombing killed more than 200 mostly impoverished people, many of them Muslims. Maybe he’d have thought twice if he had sat with me through interview after heartrending interview with the survivors — scores of them maimed and blinded by the sheer sadism of the Islamists.
Fueled by an ideology that has long found a comfortable home in Afghanistan, the Islamists first detonated a grenade as a distraction. That caused people to rush to the windows of their offices. When the bomb exploded seconds later outside the American embassy, victims were carved by glass shards before being crushed under brick and steel. Kenya may be an impoverished country located on the other side of the world, but I was quite sure these people merited whatever reservoirs of concern and care I could muster. Still, human feeling aside, I was there because I was a government official with a terrorism case to prepare — not because I cared, but because I was furthering a compelling U.S. government interest.
Pete’s holier-than-thou demagoguery is misplaced. I did not grow up a person of means, and I’ve spent plenty of my private time and resources (such as they have been) agitating for those who have it worse than I do. But it’s not his suggestion that I am unfeeling because Afghans are poor people from a faraway place that most rankles. It is his confounding of personal and corporate sacrifice, framed in an airy stream of consciousness about “teleology, the purpose and design of human nature, and rights we are owed simply and only because we are human beings.”
Wehner claims to find the answer to my question “on the road to Jericho,” whence he launches into the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which “a hated foreigner and a spiritual half-breed” comes to the aid of a wounded stranger. “What Jesus was teaching,” he instructs, “is that love and mercy are not restricted to national boundaries,” and that “as recipients of grace, we ought to demonstrate it to the outcast, to those deemed to be the ‘other.’”
Wehner, however, misses a key point of the story: The Good Samaritan was a man, not a government. This is also the central distinction in a passage Wehner quotes, but similarly fails to grasp, from Malcolm Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa. It is, says Muggeridge, “man, made in God’s image” who must make decisions based on “the universal love” rather than “his own fears and disparities.” It is “life” — human life, not the functioning of government — that Muggeridge limns as “always and in all circumstances sacred,” as fostering concern for every sparrow that falls to the ground.
A government is not a man made in God’s image. It has functions, not a life. It is a necessary evil that undergirds and secures the liberty in which man can best find the universal love and be redeemed. Government is necessary because man is flawed; it is evil because it corrupts men and usurps liberty. That is why the American framers took such pains to limit and check its powers. Love and mercy are not bound by borders, but they are the attributes of people, not functions of government. Governments are restricted by national boundaries and national interests.
It is the progressive project to aggrandize government by humanizing it. Government becomes the life that cares and feels and exhibits concern. The real lives, the human lives, become cogs in the wheel, steered along by the general will — the pieties of whoever happens to control the ruling class. As liberty is degraded, the individual’s freedom is eviscerated. He becomes a passenger, not an actor. He needn’t trouble himself about love and mercy. They are not redemptive; they are government’s responsibility. It is government that decides which faraway impoverished peoples win the collective’s largesse and its favor. Don’t bother the citizen about this earthquake or that Third World basket case — he has paid his taxes.
That is not American way, though — at least not as our society was conceived and as it ought to be. American government does not determine and effectuate our morality; it performs the minimum functions we need it to perform so that our liberty is maximized. That, in turn, maximizes our capacity to live compassionate, redemptive lives.
As individuals, we may care deeply about the Afghan people — just as we should care about people generally. It is not, however, the role of our government to care about Afghans. Our government does not exist to care; it exists to promote the freedom and security of our body politic. The actions of our public officials are not supposed to be a reflection of how those officials, guided by their private religious and ethical principles, care about their fellow human beings the world over. Public officials must faithfully perform the tasks to which they are assigned in order to fulfill government’s limited, necessary functions. That is what enables individual Americans, the most charitable people on earth, to care for Afghans as they see fit.
Personally, I should give a damn about the Afghans. That may not mean I should try to help them. It may be that I’d be doing more harm than good — the well-intentioned Samaritan giving a dollar to a mendicant who promptly uses it to buy drugs. It may mean I should respect their choice to be part of an insular, anti-Western culture with all the resulting pathologies that entails. It may mean that, while I should have sympathy, other needy people are more deserving of my limited capacity to help. And maybe my love ought to be tough love — the kind that’s strong enough to say, “Talk to me after you’ve cleaned up your act,” in the hope that you may be persuaded to do so.
But what I asked in the column was the very different question of why we should give a damn about the Afghan people. In context, I was clearly speaking not about Americans as individuals but as a political community acting through its government. Governments should only act in the political community’s interests, not on the basis of what Pete or I feel.
The military mission in Afghanistan has devolved into something that is contrary to American interests. It was perfectly appropriate — indeed, it was necessary — to dispatch our armed forces to quell enemies trying to harm our country. But that is not our purpose there now. Government officials say we are there (i.e., our government is there) to protect the Afghans in what our military commanders call their war, not ours. If al-Qaeda were to reestablish Afghan havens, we have ways of striking those without having to put thousands of our young men and women in harm’s way — ways that we use in Pakistan and elsewhere. And as for the Taliban, while Wehner worries about their barbaric practices, our government is currently paying top dollar to woo them into settlement negotiations — the Obama administration has already come to terms with their return.
More important, the corrupt Afghan government we are propping up disserves our interests. Afghanistan remains a sharia state in which religious freedom is denied, in which former Muslims are put on capital trial for apostasy, and in which President Karzai himself — not an obscure Florida pastor — incited the hair-trigger of Islamist rage that resulted in the recent mass murder and decapitations in Mazar-e-Sharif. Worse still, top American military and political officials are now trying to curb our core constitutional protection of speech — a bedrock of the individual liberty that empowers Americans to give a damn — in deference to the Afghans’ claim of a right to riot over any slight to Islam, real or perceived.
Pete Wehner closes with a concession more telling than he seems to realize. Malcolm Muggeridge’s trenchant guidance on “the universal love,” he admits, “may not provide us with a governing blueprint.” That’s right. The universal love calls on each of us, as human beings, to care about the Afghans. But as a political community acting through its government, we needn’t give a damn.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.