When the Senate Intelligence Committee released its torture report last December, among the negative reactions to it was a note of exasperated indignation from the intelligence community. This was more than frustration over the release of sensitive information; it was a particular and particularly raw feeling of betrayal.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, most Americans, whether or not we admitted it to others or to ourselves, were willing to sanction just about any action that might thwart another terrorist attack. Whether through official channels or through the cultural apotheosis of characters like 24’s Jack Bauer, that message was heard by the people we charge with foiling terrorists. National-security blogger John Schindler called the post-9/11 period “a blur . . . when all of Uncle Sam’s spooks thought our personal contributions, each day, might make the difference between a ‘nuclear 9/11’ happening or not.” The voice of the people was clear: No holds barred.
We signaled that we assented to the torture-for-security trade. For some of our leaders and many ordinary citizens to turn around more than a decade later and express moral outrage was, for many in the intelligence community, rather like Captain Renault’s shutting down Rick’s casino in Casablanca while collecting his winnings.
They had taken on enormous personal and moral burdens. Now many of those who benefited from their service were directing withering judgments against it. Even the most committed opponents of abortion should be able to detect something similar in the reaction of Planned Parenthood, and of the wider abortion industry, to the ongoing release of undercover videos revealing the darkest aspects of the practice of abortion.
From the beginnings, during the Progressive era, of the movement to legitimize and legalize abortion to our 40-years-post-Roe America, the story of abortion in this country has been one of two contrasting, but not always mutually exclusive, mainstream intuitions. On the one hand, a broad social stigma attaches to abortion, and especially to abortionists, and to varying degrees it survives to this day. On the other hand is a conviction, cultivated more or less successfully by abortion advocates, that widely available abortion is a social necessity.
The resulting tension has placed abortion and abortionists in a peculiar social position: on the margins of mainstream respectability, but fulfilling a role perceived to be essential. It’s not surprising, then, that abortionists, especially late-term specialists, are seen by the wider pro-choice movement (and by themselves) as living martyrs. They are the morally tough practitioners of a dark but necessary art on which the equilibrium of society depends.
What is this equilibrium? Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pithy formulation, which she attributed to the legal elite at the time of Roe, may be the best: It’s about “populations we don’t want to have too many of.” It’s no secret that a substantial part of the case for abortion, whether shouted or whispered, has always been what previous generations euphemistically called “social hygiene.” Of course there were Margaret Sanger’s “human weeds.” But then there was Alan Guttmacher, after whom Planned Parenthood named its research arm, who succeeded Sanger as president of Planned Parenthood while serving as the vice president of the American Eugenics Society. Even the widely popular book Freakonomics floated the idea that abortion may be effective at preventing crime by preventing criminals.
We have countenanced permissive state and federal abortion regimes, and then medical research on the victims of those regimes, deputizing abortionists to act on our behalf. That is, we have sent a message to the abortion industry not unlike what we sent to the intelligence community: We value your unsavory work for the general benefit of the country.
Back in 1973 — coincidentally, the year of the Roe decision — the political theorist Michael Walzer published the essay “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands” in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. Walzer’s central thesis was that it is impossible to achieve and to execute political leadership without at some point transgressing moral norms. We should prefer, therefore, political leaders who are morally conscientious enough to know that their hands are dirty but who nevertheless are willing to take on that burden for the good of the political community.
A decade ago, the late Jean Bethke Elshtain expanded on Walzer’s “dirty hands” argument in the context of the war on terror. She argued that while torture can never be morally righteous, there may be times — ticking-bomb scenarios, and so on — when using generally prohibited interrogation techniques is the less bad option. While we shouldn’t conjure “elaborate justifications” for torture, we should sanction the judicious transgression of general norms by our deputized protectors. Protecting the homeland, like engaging in political action generally, requires a willingness to get one’s hands dirty.
The Center for Medical Progress videos are an occasion to examine our society’s relationship with outsourced moral transgressions.
The Center for Medical Progress videos are an occasion to examine our society’s relationship with outsourced moral transgressions. With one side of our face, we scowl at the abortionist and the torturer, creating for ourselves emotional and, we hope, moral distance. (To actually meet an abortionist or an interrogator would be deeply uncomfortable — too close, too real.) With the other side, though, we wink at both: “Do what you need to do. We don’t want to know the details. And thank you.” Even many who are “personally pro-life” or “personally opposed to torture” give the wink; they see the apparent social value of other people’s dirty hands.
Whereas the politician is our explicit representative in (what Walzer would have us believe to be) the morally opaque world of political leadership, the torturer and the abortionist are our implicit representatives on the morally opaque front lines of national security and “social hygiene,” respectively. In the “hard cases” where a decision must be made and action must be taken, and in the not-so-hard cases where utilitarianism demands a course that deontology forbids, we don’t try to justify action ourselves, but someone, we believe, must act.
#related#The danger, of course, in outsourcing immorality is that it metastasizes. Elshtain’s version of the “dirty hands” theory depends on the unsavory act’s remaining morally and legally proscribed. But what about when there’s good money to be made or prestige to be earned from transgressing a general prohibition? What about when an entire political party adopts the right to that transgression as part of its governing philosophy? What about when scores of academics dedicate themselves to justifying that transgression?
The “dirty hands” theory doesn’t work if the moral actor doesn’t believe his hands are dirty. Then all we’ve done is institutionalize evil. Worse, in trusting the transgressors, we have insulated ourselves from knowledge of the evils to which we assent and for which we are therefore responsible.
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Like the Senate’s torture report, the Planned Parenthood videos explode this convenient arrangement. They compel us to confront the grisly details of the bargain we’ve made. They eliminate our pretense to innocence. They force us to undertake honestly the moral reasoning we have shirked.
In the end, the “dirty hands” theory was always unstable. Evil cannot be neatly contained, even (especially not!) by legal and governmental institutions. We can’t dabble with the demonic. Having heard the frigid voices of the abortion industry, having witnessed the illogic of its inhumanity, having seen the hands and feet and innards of the victims, we face the danger that, knowing nothing else, we will still choose that nightmare. And all our hands will be filthy.