When it comes to applying rules of international law and ethics, the U.S. government and its mainstream media operate with stunning hypocrisy, what might be called “moral idiocy,” says Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
It was on Aug. 12, 1949, that the nations of the world, with Nazi atrocities still in mind, updated what are known as the Geneva Accords. This constituted an effort to once again set limits on the wartime behavior of states and their agents.
Among other things, the accords set the range of acceptable behavior toward prisoners of war, established protections for the wounded and the sick, and the necessary protections to be afforded civilian populations within and approximate to any war-zone. Some 193 countries, including the United States, have ratified these agreements. Now, as of August 2016, they are 67-years-old. Have they worked? The answer is, in all too many cases, no.
In just about every major conflict since 1949 the Geneva Accords have been partially or completely ignored. Certainly that was the case in the Vietnam War, where civilian deaths came close to 1.5 million people. The treaties have had minimal impact in Afghanistan (during both the Russian and U.S. invasions), Iraq, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Russia’s military activity in Chechnya, and various conflicts in Africa and Asia.
The International Red Cross, which oversees observance of the accords, has not been able to do much more than shine lights on the breaches of the law and pick up the bloody pieces in the aftermath. At the rate our nation-states slaughter the innocent, it is a wonder there is an overpopulation problem.
Honored Only In the Breach
There are likely two main reasons why the Geneva Accords have had so little influence on behavior: hypocrisy and ignorance.
As to hypocrisy, it is the case that, except in rare instances, there are no serious consequences for violating the law. Particularly, if you are agents of a strong state, or the ally (like Israel) of a strong state, the chances of state leaders or agents being arrested for war crimes or crimes against humanity is exceedingly low.
One wonders why nations bothered writing and enacting the Geneva Accords in the first place. The reason might have been specific to the moment. Faced with the atrocious behavior of leaders and soldiers (it is most often the behavior of the defeated party that is pointed to, so think here of the Holocaust), and the immediate outcry this behavior produced, the pressure for some sort of reaction carried the world’s leaders forward to make and ratify agreements to prevent future repetitions of such crimes.
Yet, as it turns out, these were not serious efforts except when applied to the defeated and the weak. For the strong, it is one thing to enact an international law, it is another thing altogether to apply it to oneself or other strong states.
As to ignorance, to date it is obvious that the politicians and soldiers who wage war, or who are responsible for the arming and training of allies who do so, do not regard seriously, and in some cases are not even familiar with, the Geneva Accords. In my experience, they often cannot, or will not, discuss them when asked, and regard statements referencing the disobeying of illegal orders in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to be rightfully honored only in the breach.
And that is the important point. We can safely say that when it comes to waging war, or for that matter, aiding and abetting others doing so, the accepted behavior of both soldiers, statesmen, and diplomats is that called moral idiocy.
Moral Idiocy is not something this writer, creative as he is, has simply made up. It is a real concept in psychology that has been around for over a century. However, in our increasingly relativistic societies, it has fallen into disuse.
Briefly, it means the “Inability to understand moral principles and values and to act in accordance with them, apparently without impairment of the reasoning and intellectual faculties.” The key word here is “understand.” It is not that moral idiots do not know, intellectually, that something called morality exists, but rather they cannot understand its applicability to their lives, particularly their professional lives.
At best they think it is a personal thing that operates between friends or relatives and goes no further – a reduction of values to the narrowest of social spaces. This is paralleled by the absence of such values as guiding principles for one’s actions in the wider world.
There are innumerable examples of such apparent moral idiots acting within the halls of power. The following short list specific to the U.S. reflects the opinion of this writer: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, Oliver North, Richard Nixon and, my favorite, Henry Kissinger. Those reading this both in and outside of the United States can, no doubt, make a list of their own.
A particular incident related to Henry Kissinger’s behavior gives us an excellent example of this moral failing. The story is told by Stephen Talbot, a journalist and documentary producer, who in the early 2000s interviewed Robert McNamara, who had been U.S. Secretary of Defense for much of the Vietnam War years and was, by the 1990s, full of remorse and feelings of guilt for his behavior while in office.
Then, shortly thereafter, Talbot interviewed Kissinger, who had been Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Advisor during the Vietnam War’s final years. Here is how Talbot describes what, for us, is the relevant part of his interview with Kissinger:
“I told him I had just interviewed Robert McNamara in Washington. That got his attention. . . . and then he did an extraordinary thing. He began to cry. But no, not real tears. Before my eyes, Henry Kissinger was acting. ‘Boohoo, boohoo,’ Kissinger said, pretending to cry and rub his eyes. ‘He’s [McNamara] still beating his breast, right? Still feeling guilty.’ He spoke in a mocking, singsong voice and patted his heart for emphasis.”
Kissinger obviously held McNamara and his feelings of guilt in utter disdain. He had actually committed greater crimes than McNamara – crimes documented in Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger – and yet apparently felt no remorse at all. How does one get like that?
A Learning Deficiency
Let’s start our speculation in this regard by stating that none of us is born with a gene that tells us right from wrong. Those notions are cultural, though some basic principles (say, seeing murder within one’s tribal or clan network as morally wrong) come close to being universal.
Nonetheless, because we are not dealing with something genetic, it is quite possible that all of us have a potential for this moral failing. That being said, the vast majority of folks do successfully learn from their cultures that moral indifference is wrong and that committing what their society deems bad behavior should result in remorse and feelings of guilt.
It also seems that a minority does not learn this, or learn it only superficially. Most of this minority, realizing that such indifference is viewed negatively, keeps it hidden as much as they can. Yet when, on occasion, these closet moral idiots reach positions of power and influence, they can cause enormous damage.
There is a corollary to this. One can get socially sanctioned subgroups within which one is expected, at least temporarily, to act without reference to moral values. The military is a good example of this environment. And, under certain circumstances, so is the State Department or other foreign offices. In such a situation, most people “go with the flow” even if they know better, and then, in later life, some suffer from the trauma of the experience.
Moral idiocy can be seen as a very long-standing cultural flaw that often gives license to the violence that law and cultural mores are, simultaneously, trying to control. And, who are those who most often take advantage of this loophole? Ironically, it is the very people who lead our societies and those assigned to defend the culture and enforce the law. Lack of accountability makes for very poor public hygiene.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.
The good hearted man, who works at the local food bank, is a deacon of his church, is a Lions club member, a wonderful Father and Husband, will murder you from behind the corporate veil.
Children and adults with autism sprectrum disorder cannot distinguish between right and wrong. i.e., they must be endlessly taught what is right and what is wrong, and in which context an action is right or wrong.
Even people with high-functioning autism must learn intellectually what is ”good” and what is ”bad”. They are often called the ”chaînon manquant”.
As an person with Asberger’s syndrome, I can assure you that is not true. And if you are calling Kissinger and the others mentioned in the article and the comments autistic, then you are extremely inaccurate.
“Moral Idiocy” is a fatuous euphemism for “Criminality” of an Imperial Hubris” variety.
There is absolutely no “moral confusion”.component in the decision-making by any “moral idiot”, there is only determination of what they believe they can “get away with”, or “put over” or “pull off”. Bush, Chaney, Nixon, Kissinger, all the rest, right on back, “balanced” and “regulated” their thinkings and orderings only in relationship to what they wanted and what they saw themselves to have the “power” to pull off, to “successfully” “put over”.
To pad that kind of actions in a downy coccoon of softening rhetoric is morally disgusting. Or, to put it softer, neurotically pathetic.
That belief that anyone can “get away with”, “put over”, or “pull off” with the use of immoral actions is the essence of moral idiocy. Nobody gets out of life alive, and the belief that consciousness ends with the death of the physical body (a mere temporary “meat suit” for the Soul), and that there is no answering for deeds done to our brothers & sisters, is another form of moral idiocy.
What/Who would threaten human survival
but an INSANE human being,
or,the provoked distortion of human
nutrients through chemical bio-engineering,
or the control of news thru behavioral science.
Kissingers 2001 NSSM.
Here is what the great saint and prophet of the Salvadoran people had to say on the issue we are discussing–in his homily on September 16, 1979, six months before he was assassinated:
“Christians that are in solidarity with the forces of oppression are not true Christians. Christians who defend unjust positions that are indefensible, only to keep their status, are no longer Christians.”
Why is this website hiding all but three comments until a comment is made? Apparently most comments are not seen except by commenters. If I delete cookies and restart the browser, then again I cannot see most of the comments.
Very interesting observation. If you see this reply, please acknowledge it. It may be that the managers of this website are protecting us from general spying from NSA-types.
If you open your eyes, you can easily see that while falling victim to the looting phase of capitalism, America is dying. In fact, it has reached a stage where the process is likely to be irreversible.
A country is held together by its central ideology, some commonly shared belief that enables the exploited 70 percent to accept its fate. That used to be the American Dream, which no longer exists; social mobility has been greater even in Europe for over ten years by now, a continent where the same 198 families owned just about everything worth owning since the French Revolution (well, that has been changing with the Russian aristocracy buying up things in the last 10-15 years).
Without the slightest level of cultural integrity and cohesion, the country is indeed being transformed into a third-world country where race to the bottom is already the standard, while those who can still remember the America where it was good to live are dying or succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
Chronos is eating his children, but this time, he is broiling them first.
This article could have easily been about America’s bestie, Israel.
“There are likely two main reasons why the Geneva Accords have had so little influence on behavior: hypocrisy and ignorance.”
Specifically, the hypocrisy of criminals.
Evidence of Moral Idiocy in High Supposedly Moral Places:
Chomsky and Tom Hayden Shilling And Voting For the Hilly-Billy Monster.
That’s not moral idiocy. Chomsky and Tom Hayden do not want Hillary in power due to her warmongering, but simply to avoid Trump being elected. Trump will improve relations with Russia – but will expel Mexican immigrants and ban Muslim ones. It’s understandable why Chomsky and Hayden would support Clinton. He did say “Lesser Evil”, according to you.
Isn’t it interesting that Killary proudly embraces Kissinger, and the esteemed Left-wing
Professor Noam Chomsky is counseling people in “swing states” to vote for the “Lesser Evil”
(which he calls LEV !!) because of his Fear of Trump? His website: chomsky.info
By the way, he “requests that readers not reply ” to his manifesto !!. Strange Bedfellows Indeed!!!
To quote the morally DEPRAVED Henry Kissinger:
“Military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns for foreign policy.”
“Depopulation should be the highest priority of foreign policy towards the third world, because the US economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries.”
“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and “The elderly are useless eaters”.
– Henry Kissinger
He has been a useless eater for too long!
P. S. The same article appears on Common Sense, only it starts off with a big picture of Killary embracing Kissinger. Interestng that Common Sense would choose to highlight that relationship, and the author did not.
Kissinger is a psychopath, and I’m sure that most, if not all, psychological conditions have a significant genetic base. People who are diagnosed as highly sensitive people, and constitute 20 percent of the population, are strongly empathic, and that has been determined to be genetic. Identical twins raised separately have been shown to display anti-social and psychopathic tendencies. Tests measuring psychopathic traits have shown that politicians, and surgeons score high, while regular MD’s, teachers, and nurses score low. They often say scum rises to the top, and I think many psychopaths like Kissinger, as well as other politicians, seek positions of power where they are never really held accountable for their misdeeds, and that’s perfect, since psychopaths never accept responsibility for their own actions.
P. S. I noticed the author mentioned only republicans. He should have mentioned Bill Clinton and his sanctions on Iraq that killed 500 thousand children and had a secretary of state who thought it was worth it, and his wife displays a profound affection for old killer Kissinger.
Listen folks, the election is a heads I win tails you lose….The (dual citizen elected officials) have all the bases covered. They actually laugh at the every day USA citizen because they use the same tactics as a football game where the owner owns both teams…..Clinton goes after Putin…..Trump goes after China and Iran…..These nations are allies !……… Different entry same agenda….Who is the real enemy ? The (dual citizens politicians), plain and simple…..THROW THEM OUT ! or keep sending your sons and daughters to their slaughter……America is not exceptional…..The USA Constitution is exceptional….and the dual citizens …..hate the Constitution
Are we experiencing the results of the Cheney Rumsfeld ‘Continuity of Government Project’ (Google that & see the .gov site for it)? Since 911 and especially with the addition of the Patriot Act, to be enforced by the new Homeland Security Department, Americans could be suspected and jail with the slightest twist of language, as to see your Rights evaporate right before your eyes.
There is a certain kind of breed amongst our legal elites who truly feel the U.S. Constitution gets in our functioning way at every turn. I might add, these scholars don’t regret this feeling, no instead they feel righteous with contemptible determination that in our modern world the Constitution binds the very mechanisms which must run a great nation like ours. Gotta keep us safe, you know. Kind of a Lincoln complex of sorts.
Read what this Georgetown professor back in December of 2012 had to say about our country’s Constitution, & to think how angry people get over some football player kneeling during the National Anthem….it’s crazy!!
Warning that .gov site is a hoax…sorry, but it still won’t be a bad idea to research the Continuity of Government Program…there is one & we may be living it.
Interesting article you sited. Maybe the most valuable documents are the Declaration of Independence (a view on how NOT to govern a people), and the Preamble (a view on what the objectives of good government should be). The rest, perhaps, should be open for exploration, on what actions to take, in keeping with the ideas of good governance, as stated in The Preamble (establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, providing for the common defence, forming better unity & solidarity among the citizens[more perfect Union], etc…). Not that we can do this, in the current atmosphere of Madness & amorality.
If the people accept moral idiots as their leaders does that not suggest the people are also moral idiots? To be fair, for some people just managing to survive in a society run by moral idiots is a formidable challenge, but what about the others who have some time to ponder our national and foreign policies?
But is it moral “idiocy” or moral paralysis? And the paralysis is induced, particularly for the desperate in the populace, by a system of cynical control thinking washed over the populace in terms of demonizing and over-simplified memes. Most of these are highly emotional as right now the continuing charade that Russia is hacking the upcoming presidential election. This is McCarthyism. These public notions and BS supply a degree of excuse not to think. Is this idiocy or self-protection. And for those of us like myself, with less excuse to be an idiot, I qualify as one. Much of that is paralysis on how to respond to what we’re up against.
“At the rate our nation-states slaughter the innocent, it is a wonder there is an overpopulation problem.”
Wonder no more. It’s BECAUSE our nation-states slaughter the innocent at such a high rate that there is an overpopulation problem. There was a huge baby boom following the slaughter of sixty million people in WWII – and the Jews were at the head of that boom because comparatively they had lost maybe even more than the Russians did. Once the terrorists, the rebels, the US and its allies have finished bombing the greater Middle East back to the Dark Ages, there will probably be an even greater baby boom because the survivors have seen just how indiscriminate bombs are. Couples will have to have more babies than they otherwise would, as they will be sure to lose some in the next war – and they need for some to survive, should they survive themselves and require someone to take care of them in old age.
Indeed, patriarchy was universalized at the same moment that the state was born way back at the beginning of what we are fond of calling “civilization.” States need armies and armies need soldiers, so it was imperative that women produce lots of babies, primarily boys but also a few girls to be the next generation’s breeding stock. Patriarchy is way out of date now (if still lingering like the smell of a rotting corpse) – at least in those countries with little worry about being bombed back to the Dark Ages. However, I can’t speak for the future, what with Obama pledging a trillion dollars to bring America’s nuclear arsenal up to date (talk about “moral idiocy”!) and all the other nuclear states paying super close attention to that project. It’s likely that at some future date the survivors (if there are any) will have to return to patriarchy. How else are they gonna ensure that there will be someone to take care of them when (and if) they get old?
What you said about the over-population problem is exactly why R. Buckminster Fuller said the most effective way to stabilize & decrease population is to fully develop the lesser, and un-, developed Nations, bringing them up to the standards of the advanced social welfare states of Europe and Japan. It’s known that THEIR populations aren’t growing; are in fact declining. Ours would also be the same, except we have a lively immigration flow that keeps our population growing. The Imperialists, however, couldn’t stand the thought that “lesser peoples” in the “colonies” should be as advanced as those in the Imperial Nations, so they try to curb their populations with “benign neglect” (as Moynihan coined it), in other words; Austerity policies, and economic double-talk about why welfare is unaffordable (but a few trillion on useless nuke weapons is eminently reasonable).
I’m not sure “moral idiocy” is a useful term unless it’s applied cynically by those like Kissinger in his fake crying response toward manipulation of the populace on the assumption it can be manipulated as morally idiotic, as with Reagan’s “perception management.” Lay on the flag and bash Russia = a highly effective formula as we see over the past decades and right now with H Clinton’s operations blowing smoke over her various problems. Most people I know are aware of morality as a guiding principle on personal behavior (as LD mentions). The problem is their “turning the blind eye” for various reasons including fear of disobedience and non-conformity when it comes to “official” rhetoric and lies. The “moral idiocy” most clearly applies to leaders like Kissinger and Obama who are deliberately acting with “idiocy” by turning off moral considerations for the expedience of their policies. And this, I agree, is the behavior of the psychopath. Obama is particularly remarkable in this being schizophrenic between pretending to be moral while pursuing attitudes in league with the neocons. The more powerful these people get in a largely unrestrained System, the more they become corrupt and morally oblivious. Emphasis on rational thinking should be the number one ne plus ultra emphasis for a “democracy” whereas what we have is the opposite of this—back to Orwell and “ignorance is strength.”
The key word here is “understand.” It is not that moral idiots do not know, intellectually, that something called morality exists, but rather they cannot understand its applicability to their lives, particularly their professional lives.
Case in point: Several years ago Maria Bartiroma interviewed a so-called Titan of Wall Street on television in which this eminent citizen said that morality is not a factor in business decisions.
As the astute Baron Acton declared, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The article above demonstrates absolute power makes it possible for the already corrupt to do whatever he or she is inclined to do.
Bill, the issue of morality is truly complex. If one considers the game theory, it suggests that in the society in which almost everybody is moral, those who are amoral become exceptional, attain most benefits and even become leaders. However, a society in which everyone aims to become amoral to gain such extraordinary benefits, simply ends up in total conflict, war and destruction of the society. In terms of the empire, this is known as the crisis and the fall of the empire. As every natural system, the human society tolerates, perhaps even benefits from a dose of amorality, which introduces a bit of instability into the system. It is like radiation creating natural mutations, change and advancement of the biological organisms (Darwinian evolution). It is only this taken to the extreme, when all the society’s members realize the benefits of amorality, that things start falling apart (just like too much radiation kills biological organisms). This is most of the West now and specifically US.
Therefore, the Titan of Wall Street has just been honest. What he stated is the reality. He would have been considered either a fool or a liar by his peers if he stated otherwise.
On the side, it is an interesting question whether some groups (e.g. Jewish Ziocons, Kissingers etc) are more skilled in amorality than others: claiming morality and higher spheres whilst behaving opposite (likewise their servants the Clintons).
You mention Bush and his bevy of neocons, but Obama and his neoconettes (Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Victoria Nuland, Valerie Jarrett, Hillary Clinton) provide serious competition for them in the moral idiocy department.
I simply won’t be able to agree with the author on much of what he says. I am a Christian.
Christians don’t talk about morality? That’s a new one for me. Could Judas be considered along the lines of a moral idiot?
I’m in shock that a Christian can’t talk about morality. Maybe it is a sect of unknown origins you belong to.
You are right about “Simply. This is the reason you cant agree with the author as most so-called Christians, are simply to simple to grasp what he is talking about. Its not that you cant agree, it is that you don’t understand what he is talking about at all. Please, do us, and yourself a favor, do a great deal of study, read, read, read, and on and on and on, please! I am sorry to be rude but making a comment like this is no help at all. Jack.
Moral idiocy is better known, these days, as psychopathy.
Your list of “moral idiots,” or what I would rightly call war criminals by Nuremburg standards, is on target as far as it goes. But how can it rightly exclude Barack Obama, who has fomented a catastrophic war in Syria, joined with Hillary to destroy Libya, supported the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine, is enabling the Saudi genocide in Yemen, and meets weekly with the CIA to decide who will be assassinated by drone attack, innocent bystanders, wedding parties and all?
“How does one get like that?” I have a playground theory that applies to nearly all of the neocons mentioned plus Hillary and Bill. That is, that most males are challenged in the playground or in the neighborhood where the “fight or flight” response is invoked. One’s response to that, very often becomes a key element in militaristic behavior. Unexpected responses are not uncommon. In the playground the combatants often reconcile during or after the altercation. Childhood fighting can reconcile many issues and determine one’s status on the “pecking order”. Bullies are another dynamic, the very process that makes a playground bully demands that they must ultimately be challenged and defeated or they become an aberration, and I think every one on Mr. Davidson’s list is a powerful bully who remains unchallenged. This personality; enhanced by political and or military power, can become extremely dangerous and must be stopped by some opposing force. If our government were operating in a normal democratic fashion; I don’t think we would be experiencing this degree of aberration.
I don’t think there is a failure to understand. Moral idiocy is simply “morality” set aside for some perceived gain.
Furhtermore, it is not idiocy it is benefits the actor in some way.
Yes, the concept of “moral idiocy” is not very useful because while morality can be rationally applied, its acceptance is based upon training and sympathy, not reason. It could be a term of disdain among intellectuals, pretending that a failure of reason lies behind amorality, but it does not.
The amorality of our society is due to propaganda for greed, that money=virtue, a value only of the rich and the greedy, all taught by a mass media corrupted by unregulated economic power. It is the infantile bully boys alone who rise to the top in an unregulated economy, to abuse whatever power they can seize. It is the failure to regulate economic power that destroyed America, and made it an abyss of unexceptionality.
Yes, you are absolutely right, the self-interest over-rides morality. Another common expression for “moral idiot” is a psychopath. However, things are more complex than this because human psychology is more complex. This is a great assay on this subject by a professor of humanities, but I wish for contribution by psychologists to understand the drivers of moral idiocy better.
As a child growing up in Europe, I remember our children’s awe at a possibility of getting killed on the streets of some US urban jungle, not for the new sneakers you were wearing, then even for the new shoelaces than the killer decided he/she needed. But this was a children’s view of US, the adult view is that the psycho killers are not dwelling on the streets of Bronx or Chicago then in the halls of power in Washington. Those would easily kill for the new shoelaces or a military contract or two.
As shown here, a big part of the problem with accountability in Washington is that control lies outside the people that we elect to office:
I’m reminded of an essay by a deeply conservative agrarian; “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard M. Weaver. One of his memorable statements was “A strong case can be made for the proposition that Modern Man is a moral idiot.” I usually snarl at the mention of the word “Conservative”, but I could never forget what this man had to say about our common condition of modernity.