Suicidal Tendencies

For decades now, Americans convinced of their moral superiority to the rest of the world have sat around wondering what could possibly motivate someone to engage in suicide bombing. Who could do such a thing? How? Why? The insanity of it all!

Now consider the last few months: under duress, Americans, whether left or right, have taken to the streets to protest various things, oblivious to the fact that in doing so–whether violently or peaceably–they’re likely spreading a lethal disease vector amongst themselves and others. When the right does it, the left attacks them. When the left does it, the right attacks them. But no ideological group seems entirely immune to the temptation to take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic.

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to pass incredulous moral judgment on the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, or Al Qaeda. Americans are collectively going insane after three months of pandemic-induced hardship, and a few (admittedly egregious) acts of racial brutality. I don’t mean to minimize that, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what it’s like to suffer the kind of hardship that’s par for the course in Gaza, Jenin, Nablus, or Hebron–to name only the places at the forefront of my political commitments.

As far as those places are concerned, we’re not talking about a mere three months of half-hearted and half-enforced “lockdown.” We’re talking about decades of the real thing combined with decades of active state-sponsored expropriation, de-development, and military assault–the grinding day-in and day-out of being locked down, stolen from, shot at, and bombed. Any idea what that might do to a person? Maybe time to rev up that moral imagination a bit, and cast a glance beyond our own parochial concerns.

A person standing in judgment over others is obliged to have the standing to judge. You lack that standing when you condemn what they do, but practice the same thing in an outwardly different but morally similar guise. The more duress Americans experience, the more floridly irrational they become; the greater their irrationality, the fewer of them retain the moral standing they so often presume to have when it comes to the irrationality of non-Americans. There’s a lesson here for discerning minds about the relationship between duress and moral virtue. Something to reflect on in a calm moment, whenever we get one.


I couldn’t reproduce the graphic in the middle of the first of these two articles, but the contrast between COVID-19 in Palestine and COVID-19 in the U.S. is worth thinking about. Palestine has suffered 435 cases, and 3 deaths. Gaza has suffered 65 cases, and 1 death. The United States has suffered 1.81 million cases, and 105,000 deaths. The population of Palestine is 5.02 million. The population of the United States is 328.2 million. I’m not an epidemiologist, but the disproportion seems remarkable.

11 thoughts on “Suicidal Tendencies

  1. “A person standing in judgment over others is obliged to have the standing to judge. You lack that standing when you condemn what they do, but practice the same thing in an outwardly different but morally similar guise.” Do you mean, for example, that a judge who is a (secret) pederast can’t apply laws that forbid sexual molestation of minors? The moral standard is still the moral standard, no matter who applies it.

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    • I do mean that. A judge in that situation should step down. The moral standard remains the moral standard, but those who covertly violate it should not be the ones to apply it. Hypocrisy is a vice of its own, and it distorts the judgment of those guilty of it. So a judge, of all people, should have a basically clean record. And indeed, judges are professionally required to have a clean record in the relevant sense. So a judge who was a secret pederast would be violating a canon of his profession.

      https://www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/code-conduct-united-states-judges

      That’s the professional code for federal judges, but a similar one applies for state and local ones.

      To be precise, by “standing in judgment” here, I meant giving voice to a judgment for the consumption of someone besides the speaker, not simply making a judgment in the privacy of one’s own mind, or writing it in a private journal, or talking to oneself.

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  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  3. So a traffic judge should never have been ticketed for a traffic offense? What about a law-enforcement officer who must decide whether to detain or arrest someone on a charge that high might have been guilty of but was lucky enough to eluded, such as DWI? If all of the traffic cops who have ever driven while over the legal limit, but not been caught at it, were to run in their badges, there would be a lot fewer cops to handle rioters. I don’t know what you’d think about that, but I would prefer more cops on hand to handle rioters, regardless of their “venial sins”.

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    • I don’t think those particular conclusions follow. The requirement to have standing to judge is compatible with the existence of a threshold that has to be crossed before you lose that standing. There’s nothing ad hoc or inconsistent about saying: “Venial sins aside, once you commit immoralities of a sufficiently serious nature, you lose standing to judge in a given context.” Same point put another way: you have to satisfy certain moral criteria before you have legitimate moral standing to blame others. The latter formulation doesn’t imply that any wrongful act, regardless of degree of culpability, entails a failure to satisfy the relevant criteria. Just some.

      A few examples: A cop can’t smoke pot on the weekends, then arrest people for possession of pot. A cop can’t visit prostitutes every night after work, then go back on the job and arrest prostitutes. A college instructor can’t show up late to class every day, then take points off of her students’ grades for lack of punctuality in submitting papers. A plagiarist can’t (without first confessing and making amends for his plagiarism) call out people for plagiarism. A judge can’t habitually drink and drive, then sit in court and impose sentences in DUI cases. (Likewise a cop, mutatis mutandis.) A traffic judge can’t legitimately drive like crap, oblivious to the requirements of good driving, then pass judgment on traffic cases. The classic case is the one in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Should Arthur Dimmesdale have resigned his position as minister somewhere around p. 10? Yeah. It would have ruined the book, but still.

      Should Dr Chillingworth have lost his license? Definitely. But I guess that’s a slightly different matter.

      Your examples involve transgressions that are too trivial or unavoidable to count as nullifying someone’s standing to judge. Depending on what it is, simply violating a traffic law is too trivial to do so, e.g., one act of speeding, one failure to yield, one failure to use a turn signal, one rolling stop, etc. Even several minor offenses over several years would be too trivial, whether in the case of judges or police officers. In New Jersey, a driver’s license is suspended after the accumulation of 12 points. Many jobs require a valid driver’s license, which excludes applicants with suspended licenses. Whatever the justification re everyday jobs, that seems a good benchmark for law enforcement. If you have a suspended license, you should not be permitted to be a judge or police officer. But the scenario you describe, of officers having to turn in their badges after a single traffic infraction, doesn’t follow from the principle I was defending.

      I can’t, on the fly, come up with a precise account of exactly where the thresholds should be, and how to handle cases, etc. But I think I’ve addressed the main issue.

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  4. Epidemiological suicide bombing, Exhibit A. There’s no difference between the attitude that Williams expresses here, and that of a terrorist master for Hamas or Hezbollah. The question is which inference to draw: does this prove that Williams’s attitudes are as immoral as those of Hamas or Hezbollah, or does it prove that Hamas and Hezbollah have a higher moral standing than most Americans have ever imagined? Or a little of both?

    I don’t know the answer myself. All I can say is, feel free to put your own body on the line, if you like. But keep your distance if you do.

    Yolanda Williams, the host of the podcast “Parenting Decolonized,” which focuses on parenting black children, said she has not attended protests in Little Rock, Ark., where she lives. She is a single mother of a toddler, and her area has seen a spike in Covid-19 cases.

    But she had a message on her Facebook page for those among her followers who are white: You should be showing up.

    “I know it’s scary, but if you are committed to dismantling white supremacy, it’s you that needs to be out there, en masse, protesting as loud for civil rights as you did for the Women’s March,” she said in the post.

    In an interview on Tuesday, Ms. Williams said she was trying to drive home the point that it is far riskier for black people to attend protests than it is for white people.

    “The problem is, we are having to choose from either dying from Covid or dying from cops,” she said. “Put yourself on the line like we are doing every day. Put your body on the line.”

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  5. From an article in The Financial Times, “Health Experts Fear US Protests Will Lead to Surge in Coronavirus Cases,” June 3, 2020:

    In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was concerned the protests could trigger further outbreaks before New York City begins to reopen as early as next week.

    “You see these mass gatherings that could probably be infecting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people after everything we’ve done. You have to ask yourself: what are we doing?” he said this week.

    Should he be asking? Or asserting?

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