Ethics in a time of terror

Iraq was invaded in the name of democracy and freedom. Yet the Bush administration supported the ill-fated right-wing military coup in Venezuela against the democratically elected Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be a humanitarian intervention. Yet, George W. Bush ignores the more pressing Sudanese situation, and he opposed intervention in Rwanda where hundreds of thousands of innocent people were massacred. Bush’s failings, inconsistencies and blunders are well documented. We don’t need history to tell us that the invasion of Iraq was an unadulterated error.

Hence, if Peter Singer’s The president of good & evil: The ethics of George W. Bush were just a book detailing Bush’s ethical failings and hypocrisies, then it would not cover new ground. Moreover, such a book may be the intellectual equivalent of a slaughter as one of the world’s most influential philosophers tackles the inconsistencies of a man who can barely string two words together.

While The president of good & evil is an analysis of Bush’s ethics in relation to a few defining issues such as international relations, taxation, and the environment, it is also an examination of a dominant current of opinion running through American public life. A strand of thinking that guides the world’s only superpower, that is, the distinctively American conservative Christian perspective that divides the world into black and white, and that places the United States on a pedestal of inherent goodness above other nations. When Singer dissects Bush’s ethics he also dissects that world view.

The Christianity that Singer analyses is an idiosyncratic and literal variety, rooted in the dualistic battle between good and evil that will culminate in the Apocalypse. This view holds that as America is the promised land and therefore inherently good, the enemies of America must be ‘satanic’ or ‘evil’, and the projection of American power and values can be justified as God’s work. It is this perspective that acts as the ideological driving force behind American hegemony, and allows 3,000 American lives to be worth more than tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans.

Singer’s style is succinct and clear and his utilitarian approach make his arguments easy to follow and enthralling. It would be unfair to characterise The president of good & evil as simply one more book in a long line of anti-Bush literature. It is not Singer versus a man that—as depicted in Fahrenheit 9/11—read My Pet Goat in a classroom for seven minutes after being informed that his nation was under attack. Rather it is a deconstruction of an American world view that Bush personifies.

It is easy to see why the Bush administration characterised the invasion of Iraq as one campaign in the long running ‘war on terror’ against America’s ‘evil’ enemies. In reality the ‘war on terror’ serves a useful distraction from, and justification for, the general trend in the erosion of civil liberties, and the increased authoritarian powers of sovereign states. However, Patricia Marchak’s Reigns of Terror draws the focus away from the ‘war on terror’ and back to state-sponsored terror.

Reigns of Terror spans nine outbreaks of state-sponsored terror in the 20th century, delving into the political, social, cultural and economic context of each. From the Armenian genocide during World War I through to the Rwandan massacres of 1994, Marchak, a Canadian academic, attempts to find out if the societies where the crimes against humanity occurred, share any common features. This contextual analysis forms the foundation of Marchak’s theory of state-sponsored terror, which functions as a general early-warning guide to the occurrence of crimes against humanity. Reigns of Terror is a deeply theoretical book that serves a practical end. Marchak sets out to identify the conditions that lead to incidences of crimes against humanity, in order to build a clear and coherent doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

Reigns of Terror has an unusual structure. It is split into two parts, the first is devoted to Marchak’s theory of state terror, and the second contains the historical background to each of the mass terrors and murders. It is not a book that is meant to be read from cover to cover in a linear fashion, otherwise it would seem quite disjointed. Rather, the case studies serve as a factual supplement to Marchak’s argument. Nonetheless they are interesting in their own right.
One can feel Reigns of Terror, in some respects, is a reaction to the invasion of Iraq as it attempts to build a clear doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Such a clear doctrine would decrease the likelihood that acts of aggression—such as the invasion of Iraq—are characterised as humanitarian intervention; as well as hopefully preventing the occurrence of crimes against humanity in the first place. Reigns of Terror is definitely worth reading.

The president of good & evil and Reigns of Terror both deal with the ethical and unethical use of power. The president of good & evil deconstructs the ethical view that unilaterally dominates the world. On the other hand, Reigns of Terror creates a new moral framework for humanitarian interventions (and one that does not necessarily involve armed conflict), a guideline that, if followed, would actually make the world a more peaceful place. 

The president of good & evil: The ethics of George W. Bush, Peter Singer. Text, 2004. isbn 1 920 88508 0, rrp $30
Reigns of Terror, Patricia Marchak. McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2003. isbn 0 773 52642 0, rrp $39.95

Godfrey Moase is an Arts/Law student at the University of Melbourne.



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