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The Holocaust Shrug

From the April 5, 2004 issue: Why is there so much indifference to the liberation of Iraq?

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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I HEAR AND READ ALL THE TIME about Democratic fury; evidently, enraged Democrats are prepared to do whatever it takes to rid the country of George W. Bush's foul presence. Somehow Republican rage doesn't seem quite as newsworthy (and when it does show up, the storyline is usually "Republicans Angry at Bush"). To be fair, Republicans do control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and ought to be far gone in euphoria. But they are not. There are lots of unhappy and quite a few furious ones out there, and they are not all mad at the president. Some reporters will find this hard to believe, but quite a lot of them are actually mad at the Democrats.

Consider Iraq. By overthrowing Saddam, we stopped a loathsome bloody massacre--a hell-on-earth that would have been all too easily dismissed as fantastic propaganda if we hadn't seen and heard the victims and watched the torturers on videotape. Now: There is all sorts of latitude for legitimate attack on the Bush administration and Iraq. A Bush critic could allege that our preparation was lousy, our strategy wrong, our postwar administration a failure, and so on ad infinitum . . . so long as he stays in ground-contact with the basic truth: This war was an unmitigated triumph for humanity. Everything we have learned since the end of full-scale fighting has only made it seem more of a triumph.

But Democratic talk about Iraq is dominated not by the hell and horror we abolished or the pride and joy of what we achieved. Many Democrats mention Saddam's crimes only grudgingly. What they really want to discuss is how the administration "lied" about WMDs (one of the more infantile accusations in modern political history), how (thanks to Iraq) our allies can't stand us anymore, how (on account of Iraq) we are shortchanging the war on terror. But don't you understand, a listener wants to scream, that Saddam's government was ripping human flesh to shreds? Was consuming whole populations by greedy mouthfuls, masticating them, drooling blood? Committing crimes that are painful even to describe? Don't you understand what we achieved by liberating Iraq, what mankind achieved? When we hear about Saddam and his two sons, how can we help but think of the three-faced Lucifer at the bottom of Dante's hell?--"with six eyes he was weeping and over three chins dripped tears and bloody foam," Con sei occhi piangea, e per tre menti / gocciava 'l pianto e sanguinosa bava, as he crushes human life between his teeth.

I could understand the Democrats' insisting that this was no Republican operation; "we were in favor of it too, we voted for it too, and then voted more money to fund it; we want some credit!" Those would be reasonable political claims. But if you talk as if this war were one big, stupid blunder that we are stuck with and have to make the best of--you are nowhere near shouting distance of reality; people would suspect your sanity if you were not a politician already. Instead of insisting that the war belongs to them, too, Democrats are running top speed in the other direction. Howard Dean led the way on this flight from duty, honor, and truth, but it didn't take long for most of the nation's prominent Democrats (with a few honorable exceptions) to jump aboard the Dean express--which is now, absent Dean, a runaway train.

People ask, why this big deal about Saddam? "Isn't X evil too, and what about Y, and how can you possibly ignore Z?" But we aren't automata; we are able to make distinctions. Some evil is beyond our power to stop. That doesn't absolve us from stopping what we can. All cruelty is bad. Yet some cruel and evil men are worse than others. By any standard we did right by overthrowing Saddam--and do wrong by denying or belittling that fact.

The Democrats' refusal to acknowledge the moral importance of the Coalition's Iraq victory felt, at first, like the Clinton treatment--more relativistic, warped-earth moral geometry in which the truth gradually approaches infinite malleability. Overthrowing vicious dictatorships and stopping crimes against humanity were no longer that big a deal once Republicans were running the show. It seemed like the same old hypocrisy, sadly familiar. (I will even concede, for what it's worth, that Republicans can be inconsistent and hypocritical too.)

But as we learned more about Saddam's crimes, and Democrats grew less convinced that the war was right and was necessary . . . their response took on a far more sinister color. It started to resemble the Holocaust Shrug.

I SUGGEST ONLY DIFFIDENTLY that the world's indifference to the Coalition's achievement resembles its long-running, well-established lack of interest in Hitler's crimes. I don't claim that Saddam resembles Hitler; I do claim that the world's indifference to Saddam resembles its indifference to Hitler.