Mind The Gap: According to our Prime Minister: "There's quite a wide definition of ethics." To which we can only reply: "And it's getting wider!"
RON SUSKIND is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, best known for his reporting of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). It was while covering GWOT for The Wall Street Journal that Mr Suskind first encountered the ethics of self-created reality.
All wars do violence to human sensibilities, but the war which began on 11 September 2001 was destined to set new benchmarks. Dark practices such as torture, collective punishment, and extra-judicial killings: extreme sanctions which, from the moment of its birth, the United States had proudly and emphatically renounced; suddenly became accepted elements of American state-craft. In order to live with these acts (for which no ethical justifications are available) American military, diplomatic and bureaucratic personnel were forced to devise a whole new way of looking at and explaining the world.
Ron Suskind was the first to report it.
“In the summer of 2002,”, he recalls, “after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reported conversation. Not only because its content spoke to the very dark heart of the Bush presidency, but also because it constituted much of the “discernible reality” of contemporary politics – including our own.
In essence, what the Bush Administration official was saying to Mr Suskind was that the exercise of raw executive power, by virtue of its self-evident effects, removes any need for ethical justification. If the United States invades Iraq, then that is the reality the world must face. Questions about its ethics are simply irrelevant. As the 9/11 hijackers demonstrated: if the deed is big enough, it explains and vindicates itself.
Our ethical structures are simply too fragile to contain, or judge, such acts. Like the spider’s web which ensnares small creatures, but whose fragile threads are powerless to hinder larger prey, the “reality-based community” can only “judiciously” report and study – but never stop – what the “Empire” does. As President Richard Nixon notoriously observed to David Frost: “Well, when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Or, in the language of the Roman Emperors: Necessitas non habet legem: Necessity knows no law.
Fish, it is said, rot from the head down. If the most powerful men and women in the most powerful nation on earth were now free to embrace torture and murder with impunity, then how likely was it that those occupying the next steps of the social hierarchy would repudiate these new, self-justifying, realities of executive power? If the President of the United States could now condemn an American citizen to death without trial, what was there to prevent Wall Street looting the American treasury? Or fat Germans beggaring emaciated Greeks?
And, if the exercise of naked power now requires no justification, should we local representatives of the “reality-based community” really be surprised to learn that the rights of film technicians and actors can be cancelled at the urging of an accommodating prime minister? Or that, by building a convention centre, a casino owner can secure a revision of the gambling laws? Or that an “anonymously” funded politician can ride off, Scot-free, into the political badlands on the ass that is New Zealand’s local electoral law?
No. Not when, as our own self-created little emperor says: “There’s quite a wide definition of ethics.”
This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 May 2012.