If the post World War II years introduced the law to normative economic analysis in a modern way, it was September 11th that solidified its dominance in legal and policy-making circles. I believe this is one of the reasons why, despite all the tireless talk about God, country, and our duty to the unborn, both the word and concept of morality has been wiped from serious consideration in precisely those areas that need it the most.
Today, truth and morality aren’t much more than bytes of information that can be shaped at will by those who believe they have the power to get away with it. Instead of the Golden Rule, policymakers increasingly rely on ideas whose main aim is to maintain the status quo for the power elite while delivering pre-selected values to the largest quantity of people in the most efficient way possible. Yet, for all the scholarship, mathematical equations, and bright red lines, there is little about these snaking, complex ideas that isn’t open to interpretation. Consequently, what passes for morality has been turned into a matter of subjectivity.
Most of us here in the relatively protected haven of the western world haven’t really grasped yet the full range of the implications this creates. But it’s fundamental to understanding why there’s so much ongoing violence and instability in so many parts of the world nowadays. This condition will continue to destabilize the world for as long as it dominates our thinking. In an age of suicide bombs, weapons of mass destruction, and drones spreading over the land like locusts, this is ultimately a matter of life and death for all of us—even here in the west.
I was living in Brooklyn when the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11. I watched from the rooftop of my apartment building in Park Slope as the long black column of smoke rose up and up from the incinerated remains into the sky like a charmed cobra. I stared for a long time transfixed as it arched over the city. It reminded me of the amazing perfect double rainbow that encompassed New York after an afternoon thunderstorm only a month or two before.
As the unbroken column of smoke passed right over my head on its way toward the heart of Brooklyn, thoughts and memories of the times I had spent in the Twin Towers also came to mind. My sister’s sweet 16 birthday celebration in Windows on the World years before. Or the announcement on tv in the same venue’s bar only months before that Matt Damon’s and Ben Afleck’s hit movie won an Oscar (a decision—I didn’t mind telling everyone—with which I disagreed).
I breathed the acrid, chemical taste of the smoke like many other New Yorkers that day. The next day, I walked in the dust-filled streets of Downtown Manhattan past melted cars and overturned coffee carts filled with dust and day-old pastries unsold. Block after block devoid of people or life, as though the surface had suddenly been turned upside down. But on the edges of the destruction the untameable city that had always magically seemed to transmute every day chaos into every day life was barricaded and taken over by charged-up cops and army men barking orders over the barrels of large guns. It had only been a year ago when I told some punk on the subway to turn down his stupid boom box. And when some other punk responded that this was New York and there were no rules. From out of nowhere suddenly a troop of camouflaged soldiers whose desert fatigues matched the khaki dust were screaming at me to get the hell out of the area. How angry I was when I yelled over to my compatriot, a reporter taking pictures, that the age of Reagan had returned. And he yelled back in agreement.
Here we are almost a dozen years later still in the age of Reagan. The world is in chaos, and seems to be getting worse by the day. Overpaid technocrats justify killing with jargon and efficiency analysis. Not that this, by itself, is new. But never any mention of the Golden Rule, yet everyone claims to pray to God. Morality has been driven from journalists’ dictionaries. Instead they constantly imply that 9/11 turned us into unwilling supermen. What, at first, was supposed to be a war to defend our existence turned into an endless battle to defend our way of life, which includes dictating to truth and using as much oil as we like. What’s a million Iraqis’ lives compared to 300 million Americans’ right to have cheap plastic crap made in China for a dollar a day?
Perhaps the only thing more horrifying than what I witnessed on 9/11, was the aftermath in the years to come. Yes, like many of the other so-called educated liberals in my neighborhood, a part of me wanted revenge. I confess, part of me thrilled to the revenge talk of President Bush, the son of the man I had often ridiculed for his previous insanity in Iraq. And we feasted on that rhetoric. The only thing that assuages my guilt now is how quickly the warmongering nauseated me. To hear one politician after another speak publicly of hunting people down and killing them. Or kicking in doors as many journalists were fond of saying on tv or the radio. Kicking in doors and shooting people tirelessly repeated everywhere from FOX to NPR. Justice was indeed a warm gun. The politicians in the name of the people have the right to seek and summarily kill. The necessity of courtrooms and juries are left up to bureaucrats to decide. 9/11 bestowed these rights on us. Morality was something that was not and is still not talked about.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when countries like Israel send a fighter jet in to destroy people or a building or a convoy of trucks in a country with which it is not at war. Nowadays, if those who wield power think there is reason to fear for their lives, they have the right to kill even if the threat isn’t imminent. But it’s not morality that gives them this right. The world is too modern for morality. You see, our enemies are too evil for the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule that exists today applies only to our friends. We don’t talk to our enemies. This is the dictate by which we live and often let others die, even if it means sacrificing a few of our own.
The bedrock of 2,000 years of civilization is not good enough any more. Not in our post September 11th world. Our power, our way of life, demands something else. Engineering and business and behavioral theories can be molded to almost any need like plastic in a factory. Law and economics can always be counted on to justify a drone strike. After all, what is the value of one life compared to an entire way of life? How can one tree, or flower or human stand in the way of the pursuit of the greater good as we define it?
It’s a matter of values, isn’t it? But which values and whose values? Our values or theirs? In the absence of morality, everything is subjective. Law and economics professors didn’t read Derrida. Or did they?
Pandora, what will happen when Russia and China launch their own drones? Or France, Germany, Pakistan, or India? What will their law and economics professors allow them to do? We, my America, have already showed them that the right to impose values is underwritten by he who wields the biggest gun. What is the life of a field worker compared to a lawyer? About a quarter million less, I’d say.
Or what should we say when Shiite and Sunni suicide bomb each other to pieces? Which one is right? Each wants the right to assert his truth over the other. In the absence of morality, what basis is there for right or wrong? It’s reduced to a crazed race for power where anything goes as long as it promotes the cause. And he who gets there first controls which side is up. In such a world, even torture has its place. Award winning big-budget Hollywood movies like Zero Dark Thirty tell us so. Even the masters of the Spanish Inquisition couldn’t have so suavely justified themselves.
Or should we be surprised when someone, a kid even, gets hold of a big gun and blasts us and our children to oblivion? Maybe in his own warped way, he’s seeking his own efficient distribution. Where does truth exist in this brave new, post 9/11 world? God can be put up or taken off the shelf and carried around in our brief case whenever we feel like it.
This is the fundamental problem. An ethical system backstopped by a gun can only lead to war and killing without end. Why? The answer is implied in the statement. If you subscribe to the new thinking, then as long as we have the biggest gun, we will do anything to keep it that way. And they, the other side, will do anything to change it. That’s what you call incentive. It’s so fundamental you can scarcely call it game theory, although you can. As long as we have the big gun, you could also probably call the situation Pareto efficient. In the end, acquiring the big gun is something all sides can agree on. But it won’t lead to peace, not a lasting peace.
Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is something we can also agree on. But, in an age, when the now is all that matters, why should the guy with the biggest gun give up anything if he thinks he doesn’t have to? Whose got time for the Golden Rule when our focus should be on maximizing our own interests? In utter selfishness, we finally break through to objectivity—an objectivity as complete and absolute as a bomb blast or the nothingness that comes from it.