Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill are once again engaged in one of their favorite activities: bashing Ilhan Omar and setting her up for abuse by the American right. Two years ago, they denounced the Minnesota congresswoman and bullied her into apologizing for an innocuous tweet about the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on public debate. Now they’ve issued a statement condemning Omar “for drawing false equivalencies between democracies like the US and Israel and groups that engage in terrorism like Hamas and the Taliban.”
In a repeat of the pattern from 2019, Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues present the results of their harassment as a justification for it: “We welcome the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the US and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban.” The most telling phrase in the statement was “moral equivalency.” It has a long and ignoble history as a tool for whitewashing crimes against humanity.
When the likes of Pelosi complain about “moral equivalency,” what they really mean is this: Under no circumstances can you judge the United States and its allies by the things that they do. You must judge them by their rhetorical claims to support peace, democracy, and goodwill among men. No matter how many innocent people they kill, you can never accuse them of terrorism or criminality. Such labels are the exclusive property of designated “bad guys” like Hamas, the Taliban, and Vladimir Putin.
The high-sounding rhetoric about “moral equivalency” conceals an ugly truth: the guardians of the US foreign-policy consensus know perfectly well that it can’t be justified by reference to ethical principles. If we applied a consistent set of moral standards to all states and nonstate actors, that consensus would soon crumble into dust.
Their Dictatorships and Ours
The term “moral equivalency” (or “moral equivalence”) has a blood-soaked history. The person who did most to popularize it was Ronald Reagan’s UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. She even published a long essay on the subject, “The Myth of Moral Equivalence,” in 1986.
Kirkpatrick should have ended her life as a pariah figure. In her most notorious public intervention, after soldiers from the military junta in El Salvador kidnapped, raped, and murdered four US churchwomen in 1980, Kirkpatrick told a reporter from the Tampa Tribune that the victims had it coming:
The nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear about this than we actually are.
Kirkpatrick later realized that it might be wise to conceal her enthusiastic support for Central American death squads, at least in public. When the story appeared in print, she claimed that she had never uttered those words, but the reporter had a tape recording to back it up.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration was pumping $2 billion a year into the Salvadorean military regime, without which it would soon have collapsed. The dictatorship was waging a ruthless war against ordinary Salvadorans. State security forces killed over 75,000 civilians in a country that had a population of less than five million people in 1980. Kirkpatrick and her allies fully supported this campaign of mass murder and worked tirelessly to ensure that it would continue without any outside interference.
The death of four US citizens posed a problem for Kirkpatrick because it revealed the true nature of her chosen allies in Central America. When she issued an “unequivocal” denial that the junta was responsible for the killings, she was lying through her teeth. The US ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, left his political bosses with no room for doubt about what had really happened.
Kirkpatrick’s colleague, secretary of state Alexander Haig, suggested to Congress that government soldiers might have killed the women in a fit of absentmindedness because they ran a roadblock or were “perceived to have been doing so.” He ordered White to give the junta a clean bill of health and praise its investigation of the murders. White explained to Haig that he would be unable to carry out this demand: “The Salvadoran military killed those women, and the idea that they’re going to investigate in a serious way their own crimes is simply an illusion.” After White wrote in a cable to Washington that he would have “no part of any cover-up,” Reagan’s government fired him.
Combined with the public statements from Kirkpatrick and Haig, White’s sacking was the clearest possible green light to the Salvadorean military. If they could murder US citizens with impunity and have senior government officials run interference on their behalf, they could certainly let their soldiers loose on the people of El Salvador. In December 1981, the army butchered eight hundred men, women, and children at El Mozote — one of the worst atrocities in the history of the Americas.
Declassified cables later made it crystal clear that Kirkpatrick and her colleagues had the full picture available of what the Salvadorean regime was doing throughout the bloodbath. As New Jersey Congressman Robert Torricelli noted in 1993:
It is now clear that while the Reagan Administration was certifying human rights progress in El Salvador, they knew the terrible truth that the Salvadoran military was engaged in a widespread campaign of terror and torture.
Defending the Indefensible
This was the backdrop against which Kirkpatrick composed her essay “The Myth of Moral Equivalence.” The association of the term “moral equivalence” with this shameful diatribe should be enough to see it expunged from the political lexicon for good.
After railing against “totalitarian ideologies” that were “anti-empirical” and “deny that there is any sort of objective truth,” Kirkpatrick mocked “an earnest young man” who had told her at a public meeting that the regime in El Salvador was responsible for “gross violations of human rights” and therefore “unworthy of US support”: “The fact is, of course, that approximately 50,000 people have died in El Salvador as a consequence of a guerrilla war.” The junta, she claimed, was simply “responding to terrorist assault,” “maintaining order,” and “protecting its citizens.”
Kirkpatrick had the brass neck to refer to George Orwell’s 1984 as depicting a world in which “history is continually rewritten” while brazenly lying about the present. Her own comments were a perfect example of what Orwell had in mind when he wrote the famous article “Politics and the English Language” in 1946:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
We could add some phrases to the list in the wake of the Salvadorean horror show that Kirkpatrick endorsed. A government systematically murders tens of thousands of people: this is called responding to terrorist assault or maintaining order. Critics of the government suggest that cold-blooded murder is equally reprehensible no matter who the perpetrator is: this is called moral equivalence.
The Salvador Option
The subsequent history of the phrase “moral equivalence” has been every bit as shabby as you’d expect in light of its origins. Whenever you hear a politician or a commentator using it, it’s safe to assume they’re trying to whitewash atrocities committed by their own government or its client states.
The statement from Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership is no exception. The signatories express their fury at the very idea that Israel and the US could be held to the same moral standards as official enemies like Hamas or the Taliban. They have to maintain an iron conceptual wall between “democracies” and “groups that engage in terrorism,” because the United States and its allies have killed far more innocent civilians than the “terrorists” against whom they rail. As soon as we descend from the level of grand concepts to that of empirical reality, the foreign-policy consensus is bound to disintegrate.
After eight days of fighting last month, there was already a vast disproportion between Israeli and Palestinian casualties: Hamas rockets claimed the lives of 10 people, while the Israeli assault on Gaza killed 212, including 61 children. This is exactly what you would expect considering the imbalance of power between the two sides. As the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim wrote at the time of the last major onslaught in 2014:
The death toll in the current round of hostilities is a grim reflection of the asymmetry of power between the fourth-strongest army in the world and a virtually defenceless civilian population. In the first ten days of aerial bombardment, the “score” was 260 Palestinian dead, mostly civilians, and one Israeli. By launching a ground offensive on July 17, Israel sharply escalated the death toll to over 300; destroyed many more houses, hospitals, and water plants; and displaced some 50,000 people out of their homes. “Operation Protective Edge” has thus turned the densely populated Palestinian enclave on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean into a living hell.
Shlaim also noted that Israel, as the occupying power ruling over an oppressed, stateless people, cannot claim to be acting in self-defense: “The chain of action and reaction is endless. But the underlying cause of the violence is the Israeli colonialism.”
The US military inflicted similar carnage on the people of Iraq from 2003 onward, but on an even grander scale. The most comprehensive survey of Iraqi mortality rates between 2003 and 2011 estimates that there were almost half a million deaths as a result of the war, with approximately 60 percent of that figure directly caused by violence. The United States and its allies were the leading cause of violent death among Iraqis:
US-led coalition forces were reported to be responsible for the largest proportion of war-related violent deaths (35 percent), followed by militia (32 percent). While militia were reportedly responsible for the most adult male deaths in the sibling survey, coalition forces were reportedly responsible for killing the most women.
Not that militia violence in Iraq was unrelated to the US-led occupation. As things began to come unstuck for the Bush administration, US officials started briefing reporters about their plan to foster sectarian paramilitary groups, which they called “the Salvador Option.” The US ambassador to Baghdad, John Negroponte, was a veteran of the dirty wars in Central America. Within a couple of years, Shia death squads were routinely abducting Sunni civilians and torturing them to death with power drills.
Jim Steele, a US officer who had served as an adviser to the Salvadorean army in the 1980s, played a central role in organizing these paramilitary gangs. Steele was a close associate of future CIA chief David Petraeus. A New York Times photographer, Gilles Peress, recalled an interview with Steele at an interrogation center in Samarra:
We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I look around and I see blood everywhere, you know. He hears the scream from the other guy who’s being tortured as we speak, there’s the blood stains in the corner of the desk in front of him.
When US politicians denounce the idea of “moral equivalence,” this is the kind of behavior they’re trying to brush under the carpet.
The attacks on Ilhan Omar betray a profound feeling of insecurity. Her critics have to enforce a rigid taboo against speaking plainly, because they know their ideological nostrums will not hold up under sustained scrutiny. Omar’s widely publicized confrontation with Elliot Abrams over his track record in Central America was clear proof of that.
The supposedly offensive tweet from Omar began with the following words: “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity.” Few people are willing to state their opposition to this principle, but if the Beltway foreign-policy establishment had to apply it consistently, it would cut through their most cherished assumptions and alliances. They’ll fight like hell to stop that from happening, with slogans like “moral equivalence” inscribed on their banner.