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Monday, January 03, 2005

Lesser evils and obscene questions....

Good friend Ciarán forwarded me an interesting op-ed from yesterday's Observer by Nick Cohen that raised the admittedly "obscene question" as to whether the world ought to be concerned with the health and well being of those who suffered from the impacts of the devastating tsunami in Burma.

By all indications -- other than those coming from the government of Burma itself -- the damage and loss of life must have been as bad along that nation's 1650 mile southern coastline as it was for their neighbors in Thailand and Indonesia. No one seems to believe the incredible figure of only 53 deaths provided by Burma's official sources (compared to tens of thousands of casualties along the neighboring coasts), but there is a sense as of today (Monday) that the facts will soon be known.

What Cohen seems to be arguing, however, is that efforts to get aid and assistance to the Burmese people ought not to become an obsession given the nature of the Rangoon regime and its efforts to maintain a wall of silence around any information that reflects badly on life in Burma. "The penalties on working in the world's worst states should raise the question of whether the game is worth the candle. To many it's an obscene question to ask." From that point on he offers a rant that essentially advocates taking political advantage of the disaster by tying relief efforts to the "democratic"-ness of the countries involved. Using his logic (as I read it), those with strong democratic institutions - and especially with well developed civil societies - should get priority for assistance. His comments on Indonesia and China imply that less favor would be shown to nations with a history of repression (despite their current rating on Cohen's democratic scorecard) . Etc.

This Bush-like, Reagan-esque approach is Machiavellian, to be sure, although it is likely to be rationalized on the belief that corrupt regimes will only waste the funds so why send good money after bad purposes when the relief given to democratic states would be used so much more effectively.

Thinking about this while completing my reading of Ignatieff's Lesser Evil, I believe what we have here is the mirror context for the dilemma of dealing with terrorism. For Ignatieff, the morally questionable behavior that liberal governments must engage in during an anti-terror campaign is justified in light of the greater evil that they would face if they did nothing. Applying that same logic, when faced with a human disaster of such magnitude as the Indian Ocean tsunami, a decision to engage in humanitarian support of the Burmese people through contact with their government can certainly be regarded as the moral equivalent of a lesser evil when compared to the implied "greater evil" represented by Cohen's support for a politically manipulative use of this situation to either force a regime change (highly unlikely) or to teach "them" (the Burmese people?) a lesson for their support of the anti-democratic military regime.

Extending the lesser evil approach even further, it would be necessary for those undertaking this "lesser evil" action to accept the fact that such morally compromised behavior (i.e., providing aid and assistance to the Burmese people) must be accompanied by exposure to harangues from folks like Cohen who seem to operate under the assumption that no good deed should ever go unpunished....
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