The Magazine

Honor Killing, American-Style

What science and Roe v. Wade made possible has become virtually mandatory among our self-anointed elites.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Obama's intolerance of the conscientiousness of so many of us is particularly curious. In his inaugural address he declared his intention to perfect America's conscience. Not even in his most basic duty to provide for the common defense will he hesitate to choose American ideals at their best over the expediency of dealing roughly with our most violent enemies at their worst. Against those who would attack us, he threatens to unleash the full force of our tenderness. But to those Americans who wish merely to refrain from what they regard as harming babies--the president extends not a hand but a fist. (Respectable Catholic opinion is so enfeebled that Notre Dame feels safe in awarding the new president an honorary degree this spring--an honor denied to President Clinton for eight long years after he revoked the Mexico City policy.)

If we want to sympathize with the president, we can agree that pro-lifers may be naïve and deplorably sentimental. We can recognize that many of them are Roman Catholics, who elevate their bigoted allegiance to the pope over our national interest in reducing the number of girl babies in India, China, and Vietnam. But, still, indulging these hobbyhorses to some degree would not impede the core items on the Obama agenda. After all, what vital national interest requires that some Americans be compelled to participate in providing abortions against their will? And why must abortion be made even more free of regulation when we've just concluded that every other detail of our economic lives has, since about the time of the surrender of the American embassy in Tehran, been underregulated?

There is something more profound at play here than mere politics. The president's pitiless attack on freedom of conscience stems from something deeper and more primal than a lawyerly allegiance to human rights. The Obama rigidity, I think, reflects the fact that the adherence of our best and brightest to an ethic of abortion has become a question of honor--honor of a comparatively new variety, tied not to "patriarchy" and the traditional family, but to an interesting cocktail of feminism and upper-middle-class respectability. Abortion has become the instrument through which the best of us--feminists and college graduates--maintain our political and family honor.

To explain what I mean, I must make a very unpleasant analogy and ask you to think about a practice that, however bad you think abortion, is incomparably worse. Unlike abortion, its victims have names, such as Aasiya Zubair Hassan of Orchard Park, New York, who was decapitated in February (the police have arrested her husband for the crime); Sandela Kanwal of Atlanta, who was strangled by her father last year; and Aqsa Parvez of Peel, Ontario, whose father and brother may have strangled her in a "planned and deliberate act," according to police. These women are victims of honor killing, and they are among thousands killed every year for infidelity, for refusing to wear a head-covering, because they filed for divorce. Frequent in certain Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh communities in South Asia and the Middle East, honor crime is growing rapidly in Muslim communities in the West.

There can be no moral equation between abortion and honor killing. Even to abortion purists, abortion is sad--perhaps tragic--and to some degree it destroys a potential human being. At worst, it is a more civilized and sanitized version of infanticide. But even if you believe that abortion is murder, honor killing is aggravated murder of a more horrible kind. A husband, brother, or father kills a wife, sister, or daughter--and does so not out of selfishness or weakness, but from family feeling. Compared to ordinary murder, honor killing is as incest is to ordinary rape--a violation not only of a person, but of the kinship ties that make us human. We hate honor killing--but we have to recognize its place in a family structure that is maintained by a sense of honor.