The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Tragedy and Disgrace

Powerline discusses the current furore surrounding Secretary Rumsfeld, and looks for a unifying theme. They touch on the unacceptability of bad news, the idea that error can always be prevented by having a plan. In their discussion, they brush against one of the central problems of our society, the denial of tragedy.

A powerful example is provided by medical malpractice liability, especially in obstetrics. We expect that babies should be born without dying in the process; death or permanent damage is a great tragedy, to be avoided at almost any cost. But when tragedy comes to us, it is natural to seek someone to blame; there is a powerful individual inclination to deny tragedy, replacing it with intentional harm. [See also C. S. Lewis's insights on "misfortune perceived as injury".] Those who believe too strongly in the perfectibility of society add a social impulse to this. [I do not claim that this is the sole impulse behind our lawsuit-addicted society, or even the most important; at the least, the substitution of legal vindication for both moral righteousness and social approval is more important.]

Rumsfeld is something of a lightning rod for those who would deny tragedy. As Secretary of Defense during a war, he deals in tragedy and often in error, and reports both; yet he persistently does not apologize. This is another infuriating feature, to his detractors -- they seek his disgrace as well as his removal, and would like nothing better than to damn him in his own words. The reader will be reminded of Bush's similar "failure to apologize."

All but one of the arguments against Rumsfeld are based on the postulate that the Iraq war is going badly for the U.S., and on the additional postulate that it could reasonably be expected to have been much better. These arguments appear to carry no weight with the President, and they should not.

The remaining problem, as the estimable Greg Djerejian has repeatedly pointed out, is the torture. This is more than a mistake, and if Rumsfeld's actions have really contributed to it, he should go. The rest of the case against him [e.g., some Senators don't like him] is of no consequence, and I wish Greg wouldn't weaken his argument by mixing it in.

Update: Victor Davis Hanson defends Rumsfeld in better detail than I could, but does not mention torture. Once again the two sides are talking past each other.