Democratic Underground

The Wall Street Journal: Purveyor of Moral Relativism?

May 31, 2005
By Ken Sanders

Last week, Amnesty International released its annual report on the state of human rights across the globe. In the foreword of the report, AI's Secretary General, Irene Khan, declared, "The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times."

At a press conference releasing the report, Dr. William Schultz, executive director of AI's U.S. branch, called the U.S. government "a leading purveyor and practitioner of" torture. Dr. Schultz also called upon foreign governments to "uphold their obligations under international law by investigating all senior U.S. officials involved in the torture scandal."

Bristling with righteous indignation, the Wall Street Journal decried the "moral degradation" of AI, a "highly politicized pressure group." According to the Journal, AI "can't be taken seriously" because it "can't distinguish between Stalin's death camps and detention centers for terrorists who kill civilians." Thus, the Journal declares, AI's "accusations amount to pro-al Qaeda propaganda."

So, to paraphrase the Journal, anyone who dares criticize the Bush administration and demand that it end its well-documented practice of torture, spews "pro-al Qaeda propaganda."

Aside from the entirely asinine proposition that a critic of the Bush administration is a traitor, there are several other interesting flaws in the Journal's diatribe.

First, it is so laughably literal. The Journal notes from the outset that the term "gulag" was made famous by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and referred to the network of Soviet slave labor camps where millions died under Stalin's rule. True enough. However, as noted by the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "gulag" has come to figuratively mean a prison camp, especially one for political prisoners.

In other words, dear Journal, referring to Guantanamo Bay as a gulag was a figure of speech. Get it? Any publication that can't distinguish between the literal and figurative use of gulag can't be taken seriously. Except, perhaps, by itself.

Secondly, the Journal either naively or falsely defends the innocence of Bush & Co. in the systemic use of torture and abuse by the U.S. at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere. According to the Journal, AI should get off of Bush & Co.'s back since "the multiple probes and courts martial have found no evidence that the U.S. condones or encourages torture."

Undeniably, not a single probe or court martial has found any high-level U.S. official to be at all responsible for the widespread use of torture by the U.S. military and intelligence services. Then again, that was exactly Dr. Schultz' point in calling on foreign governments to investigate the matter. It's obvious that the U.S. isn't inclined to do so.

All of the so-called investigations thus far conducted by the U.S. into its own use of torture have been anything but independent. Nearly all of the investigations established by the Pentagon involved the military investigating itself. None of the investigations looked higher than Generals in the U.S. military. None of the investigations examined the roles played by the White House, Department of Justice, or the CIA. None were authorized to investigate Rumsfeld's role.

As for courts martial, if the Journal honestly believes (and it doesn't) that a military court martial is going to reveal that anyone from Bush & Co. condoned or promoted torture, then it is simply too naive for words.

However, what is most striking about the Journal's reaction to AI's comments is the degree to which it reveals the moral relativism of the Journal and, by extension, all Bush apologists.

Long a catchphrase of the conservatives, "moral relativism" was and is often used to portray liberals as godless heathens willing to defend any behavior under the right circumstances, no matter how sinful, cruel, or depraved. In defending the use of torture against individuals suspected of being "terrorists who kill civilians," the Journal, like Bush & Co., indulges in the same relativism of morality they so indignantly decry.

Torture, like rape and child pornography, is wrong. Always. No exceptions. In fact, the Bush administration pretends to denounce torture when it criticizes other torturing nations in its "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices." However, once it is done feigning moral indignation, the Bush administration turns around and sends alleged terrorists to those same nations to be tortured. Or, it keeps the alleged terrorists for itself and administers some good 'ol Yankee torture.

In other words, as long as we do it, torture is okay. Particularly if those whom we torture (or outsource to be tortured) are, in the words of the Journal, "terrorists who kill civilians." Thus, for Bush & Co., torture, while nominally immoral and wrong, becomes relatively moral when employed against terrorists, or enemy combatants, or anyone else we deem deserving of such treatment.

Similarly, Bush and his Christian soldiers oppose embryonic stem-cell research because they claim it destroys life to save life. Thus, for Bush & Co., destroying life to save life is immoral. Nonetheless, Bush and his apologists defend torturing detainees if it leads to intelligence which saves American lives. For them, therefore, the morality of destroying life to save life is a relative question.

It is also interesting that the Journal chose to defend Bush & Co.'s use of torture against "terrorists who kill civilians." From its choice of words, the Journal apparently holds those who kill civilians in particular contempt, as if it believes that killing civilians is exceptionally immoral. The Bush administration and others of sufficient patriotism would apparently agree, judging from their condemnation of those "cowards" who kill civilians, such as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the Iraqi insurgents. Presumably, Bush and his compatriots consider killing civilians to be wrong, immoral.

But only if terrorists do the killing.

If the U.S. happens to kill scores of civilians through "Shock and Awe," for instance, then it is merely considered "collateral damage" regrettable but certainly not immoral. We didn't mean to kill them, after all. We just knew that civilian deaths were extremely likely.

See? It's all relative.

It is comforting to know that our President, the Journal, and so many fellow Americans are of such high moral rectitude. Amnesty International and other purveyors of "pro-al Qaeda propaganda" ought to be ashamed of themselves for even calling the morality of our President and this great country into question.

Visit Ken Sanders' blog at

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