Wednesday, February 4, 2004

There has been some reaction to my post of Friday concerning Mel Gibson's Peggy Noonan interview and his remarks seeming to minimize the Holocaust.

Sasha Volokh has reponded to my comments on his and Clayton Cramer's remarks on the issue here. (I have also updated the original item with a pointer.

Now, I'm thinking I said most of what I really had to say in the original post. I maintain my...disconsolate...state of mind. Not to belabor the point, but I think many of the elements for an answer to Sasha are found in his own reply...and, although he's a bit more strident than I might be, Mike in the comments makes a very good point:

Mike quotes Volokh:

A serial killer may kill more grislily than someone who's in it for the money; a lynching may be more shocking, or may tell us more about deep political issues, or may be more socially harmful in some sense, than a random drive-by shooting; but all of the above are immoral because they snuff out an innocent life. The same right is violated in each case. Similarly, the reason it's immoral to kill 6 million Jews is because doing so involves 6 million acts of murder. Do I care any extra that they were killed because they were Jewish, or that their killing was systematic? Yes, in various senses, but not in the moral sense.

Then Mike again:

So then dropping a bomb in Hiroshima was as immoral as a portion of the Holocaust, say the Hungarian portion of it.

It's a good point. The bombing of Hiroshima was not a "little Holocaust," in spite of the fact that innocents undoubtedly were killed.


Now, the Holocaust is special in various ways. Unlike most other atrocities, it has a specific and important anti-Jewish element, which makes it relevant to modern anti-Semitism. Obviously, it had a racial element (like some other atrocities, but not all), so it's relevant to race relations generally, and people being singled out because of an accident of birth has its own emotional impact, as does people being singled out because of the cultural or religious community they belong to. It was more systematic than some other atrocities, which gives it special importance as an illustration of what an evil government can do if it puts its mind to it (so it may have more relevance as a cautionary tale for, say, the design of political systems). It had its particularly horrific elements -- camps, ovens, and the like -- which makes it particularly spine-chilling. And it took place in a highly developed, industrialized country that didn't have much previous history along those lines, so it's a good illustration of how quickly things can go sour and therefore how important it is to guard against this sort of thing even where you don't think such vigilance is necessary.

How about a series of events that embodies all of those characteristics to make a growing and unique whole? Might that not, combined with the fact that I think we can each think of circumstances under which innocents die or are killed that are morally distinct from one another, might that not begin to add up to an overridingly unique or "special" moral character of the Holocaust? I think so, and further, I think that Sasha also understands this, and that at a certain level we're arguing, dare I say it, semantics. I'm certainly not going to beat someone over the head until they mouth just the right words I'm looking for. Maybe if Sasha or Clayton were preparing the launch of a major motion picture based upon the final hours of Christ, I'd have more of an interest in fighting it out over a missing sentence or two.

Now, back to Mel Gibson...

By the way, both Lynn B. and Meryl Yourish tackle the issue in style.

Update: Of course, just as I hit the "send" button on this post, I see Sasha has posted further, addressing both Lynn B. and Meryl.

Nothing in this latest changes any of the above, though. I still say there's a factor missing from Sasha's calculus, but it's something that he's going to have to come to himself. [Edit: And I think Sasha misses the boat trying to disect the legal argument to see whether it supports him or not. If people are using legal examples, it's to put it into terms you might understand, Sasha, to help you take the point that you don't seem to recognize in your initial post, of differences between killing and killing - differences in morality the law recognizes, even if the morality isn't the only factor, and even if you might not agree with all the law.] Anyway, all the pieces are there.

Update: Lynn B. also reacts to Sasha's latest.

Final (I hope) update: Neither Clayton nor Meryl are happy.

Update: OK, the discussion continues.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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