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Thanks to all for an interesting discussion. I agree with much of what has been said. But I'd like to add one quick point that (I think) hasn't been made yet.  The notion of human rights, appealing as it may be on the surface, is deeply flawed: not only is it hard to agree on why they might be but whatever we end up will always be limiting. If your list of rights does not include X, then is X ok? To draw a fence around a set of morally protected goods is a dodgy practice. Might be good as an instrumental device (a political slogan to rally people around a cause) but philosophically the notion is a mess. I wouldn't go as far as Alasdair MacIntyre and deny the very existence of rights, but I believe that rights are, at most, the corollaries of a moral system and not its foundations. So then why do we need rights? What's wrong with duty, or virtue, or utility, or categorical imperatives? Take your pick. Rights are like money: they are created for a purpose. So let's stick to the purpose.

Is there a price to pay for appealing to rights? I believe there is one, which the demonization of the enemy. A violator of human rights is, de facto, a subhuman. That's why all  modern western wars are  "just." The enemy is never just "against our interests": it is always evil. Communism was evil, so it was OK to kill 3 million Vietnamese. Saddam was evil, so it's fine if we slaughtered 100K+ Iraqi civilians. Note that this is NOT optional. It's not self-flattery. Because if you remove that protection clause (ie, just-war) then we become "just fucking war criminals."  But, in fact, in Vietnam, we were "just fucking war criminals." Same with Iraq. But a rights theory is what allowed Madeleine Albright to say that the sanction-induced deaths were all "worth the price." When you fight Satan, no price is too high.

Never mind that Gaddafi was cavorting with Sarko and Blair not long ago. Today he's not just a baddie past his expiration date: he's a genocidal evil monster -- the new Hitler. A title he shares with Ahmadinejad. Milosevic was our earlier Hitler. It's wrong to think that we call all our enemies Hitler out of political expediency. We do because it's in the logic of rights-based liberal interventions. We never intervene to engineer a peace resolution between opposing  parties. No, we take sides and declare our side noble and the other pure evil. Milosevic was Hitler and Kosovo was the land of Mother Teresa. It is an outlandish concept that a country, the US, that has killed more innocent Muslims in the last 10 years than all other nations on earth put together should be the one lecturing the world about preventing genocide in Libya. This collective blindness we see everywhere is the result of a rights-based approach to interventions. It so happens that demonizing the enemy (the necessary consequence) often coincides with age-old racism (look at those barbarians!) and entail a huge dose of hypocrisy. Our new Hitlers often were our drinking buddies years earlier.  And I won't get into the lies. "We stopped Gaddafi from killing 100,000!" Yeah, right.

Final point: demonization in war is a terrible thing to do because that's what leads to total war. After all, against evil, no holds barred. Shock and Awe could not have happened if Saddam had not been convincingly labeled as the new Hitler.

by Bernard Chazelle (Bernard Chazelle) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 07:06:42 PM EST

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