It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Scripps-Howard News Service 1.30.02
"Meanwhile, Germany called in the American ambassador to
express its concerns about human rights." (From the New York
Times, discussing "The Treatment" of captive terrorists
on January 27.)
Before commenting in depth, here are a few news items to be expected
if the present trend continues:
The Sudan will warn England to observe the rule of law.
The Republic of Ireland will officially protest insufficient variety
in French cooking.
Romania will complain about the state of hygiene in American hospitals.
The Democratic Republic of Congo will publicly criticize architectural
styles in Italy.
Saudi Arabia will call for greater religious freedom in the Netherlands.
And why not? Saudi Arabia has now taken to offering advice to the
president of the United States about foreign policy. Next they will
tell us how to barbecue pork ribs.
A concert pianist's life is deeply anchored in things German. While
it is wonderful to have Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy or Bartók,
without the output of German-speaking composers we would find ourselves
without a core repertoire - indeed, we would find ourselves without
Chopin, Liszt, Debussy or Bartók. Music became an art form
on par with the visual arts and literature when Germans applied
their intellect to the Italian gift of producing melodies. It is
not a coincidence that the composer most able to combine German
and Italian aspects of the art is winning so many converts to classical
music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthday coincided with the New
York Times article cited above.
German names also fill the annals of the sciences. The number and
range of contributions to physics or medicine is legion. And in
literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is second only to William
But when it comes to human rights, Germany needs to continue keeping
a low profile, as instituted and practiced by the wise men of immediate
post-war Germany - Konrad Adenauer and Theodor Heuss. Long before
the horrors of the Third Reich, the proverbial German was known
as the proverbial "subject," subordinating himself to
higher authority with unparalleled gusto. And, predictably, when
these "subjects" were given their own blanket authority
over other human beings, the extent of their inhumanity presented
a puzzle the world is still trying to solve. How could the sons
and daughters of a supposedly highly civilized country behave like
beasts and monsters on the loose?
Germans like to write. They write a great deal. And the writings
provide at least some of the explanation. An unending line of philosophers
was unleashed upon the world with the emergence of Immanuel Kant
who, in his "Critic of Pure Reason," declares himself
on par with God. "I chose this only path," he explains
in the Preface,"and flatter myself thus having succeeded in
avoiding all those errors that have set reason against itself."
With one or two exceptions, German thinkers may be noted for the
total absence of doubt about the correctness of their view and evaluation
of the world. More importantly, from Hegel to Heidegger, from Marx
to Marcuse, through the Frankfurt School and its New York chapter,
the New School for Social Research, an utter contempt for mankind
is the underlying message.
But even the headlines of the great French Revolution of 1789,
"Egality, Fraternity, Liberty," turned out to be something
the French like to shout from the rooftops, rather than principles
by which to live. No - human rights probably began in the souls
of Englishmen who gave birth to a legend in which people sit at
a round table. The round table, affording no place of precedence
even to Arthur the King, expressed man's yearning for that most
important human right: equal treatment before the law. The Magna
Carta followed, and so did the Constitution of the United States
Where do the captives at Guantanamo fit into our traditions of
equal treatment? Those lofty principles are based upon reciprocity.
We have certain rights because we recognize and guarantee those
same rights to others around us. The terrorists do not recognize
our rights, therefore they have none themselves. Mere biological
conformity - such as walking erect and having a rotating thumb -
is insufficient for equal treatment.
Before we bind ourselves by laws, we are driven by instincts and
reflexes. Foremost among these is the instinct to survive. Members
of the Taliban and Al Qaeda openly threaten to use any and all means
to terminate our existence. The restraints imposed on them merely
reduce the risk to fellow Americans who volunteer to facilitate
And, incidentally, Germany's, too.