In Which I Disagree With Megan McArdle Some More

Megan McCardle has a rather peculiar response to my last post:

“Listening to the debates about abortion, it seems to me that really broad swathes of the pro-choice movement seem to genuinely not understand that this is a debate about personhood, which is why you get moronic statements like “If you think abortions are wrong, don’t have one!” If you think a fetus is a person, it is not useful to be told that you, personally, are not required to commit murder, as long as you leave the neighbors alone while they do it.

Conversely, if Africans are not people, then slavery is not wrong. Or at least it’s arguably not wrong–if Africans occupy some intermediate status between persons and animals**, then there is at least a legitimate argument for treating them like animals, rather than people.”

“The debates about abortion” contain multitudes. I, however, understand perfectly well that the debate about abortion (at its best) is a debate about personhood. That’s why I used the example of Iraq to make the point that Megan seems to be responding to:

“I opposed the war in Iraq, but I did not conclude that it would be OK for me to kill soldiers who were shipping out, policy makers with blood on their hands, and so forth. In that case, many more innocent lives were at stake than could possibly have been at stake in Tiller’s.”

I might be confused about a lot of things, but whether or not our soldiers and the inhabitants of Iraq are persons is not one of them, nor does my thought that killing Donald Rumsfeld would be wrong depend on any such idea. My point, basically, was this:

(a) We have a system for resolving political disputes in this country. We elect people, and those people make laws. When those laws are within the limits set by the Constitution, they are binding. When not, a court can strike them down. When we want to, we can change the Constitution, though it is (rightly) rather difficult.

(b) One inconvenient thing about democracies is that it is very, very unlikely that your own side will prevail all the time. You get a voice, but so does everyone else, and barring stupendous coincidences, this means that things won’t always turn out the way you think they should.

(c) It would be naive to think that you will lose only on unimportant questions. Governments make hugely consequential decisions all the time. Sometimes, these decisions lead to the killing of innocent people, in ways that you think are deeply wrong.

(d) If anyone who believes the government had adopted a policy that would lead to the killing of innocent people is justified in killing people to stop this, then we might as well just decide not to have a government at all. During the Bush administration, half the country would have been justified in trying to assassinate the President and members of his administration. Any corporate executive who works for a company that does not adequately protect its workforce from poisoning or injury would have to watch her back. Etc., etc., etc.

(e) If you are committed to our form of government, you must leave some room between (1) the claim that some policy it adopts is wrong, even very wrong, and (2) the claim that you can kill people to prevent this wrong thing from happening.


Steve Waldman writes:

“In a way, conservatives now face a choice similar to what liberals in the late 1960s and early 1970s faced during the hayday of the Weather Underground. Some on the New Left defended them as legitimate-albeit-excitable members of their broad coalition, while other more traditional liberals attacked them as extremists who violated liberal ideals. My sense of the history is that enough on the New Left defended extremists to tar all of liberalism. Will that happen for conservatives now?”

I don’t want to engage with his claims about how many people condemned extremism and how many did not. But I absolutely agree that on the most charitable reading of the anti-abortion side, this is the choice they face. And be clear about what that choice was. Opposing the war in Vietnam was not a minor matter, like wearing love beads. The war in Vietnam produced massive casualties, many of whom were innocent civilians. A whole lot of lives were at stake. Despite that, I think the Weather Underground was wrong. Because the fact that lives are at stake is not enough to justify giving up on democracy. And be clear: when you think that when you lose out in a political debate in which lives are at stake, that makes it OK to kill people to get your way, you have given up on democracy.

Megan claims to find “the certainty of the pro-choice side so disturbing”. But that’s not what is at issue in my post, or publius‘, or in the comments. What bothered me about Megan’s post wasn’t anything to do with which side is right in the abortion debate; it was her claim that whenever someone thinks that our government, through its lawful decision procedures, has done something that will result in the deaths of innocents, that person is justified in using lethal force to get her way.

If someone has a problem with excessive certainty here, it’s not those of us who think that when we lose politically, and the stakes are non-negligible, we are not justified in resorting to political violence.


And one other thing: it’s a bit rich to hear this coming from the right. Here I’ll just quote Athenae (with my asterisks):

“For eight f*cking years anybody to the left of Pinochet had to kick back and watch while sensible centrists and the Coalition of the Involuntarily Committable got together and raped the country and f*cked up the whole world. For eight f*cking years we were told that marching in the streets with giant puppets was the most horrific form of treason imaginable, was demoralizing our troops and hurting the debate and making the baby Pope Benedict cry. Not once did I ever in that time hear Megan McArdle or any of her other sensible friends discuss how maybe, just maybe, President Bush and his administration had PUSHED us to the edge, where we HAD to make those puppets because we felt the political process was closed to us.

No, back then it was “elections have consequences” and “you lost” and “look upon my works, ye mighty, and f*ck off,” and anytime anybody had the temerity to say, “erm, dude, if you don’t mind I’ll be over here with this sign on a stick” they might as well have been plotting to shoe-bomb Air Force One the way the whiners in the nuttersphere howled and shrieked. There was none of this, “you just don’t know how hard it is to be on the losing end of everything including your soul” back then. Just them, partying with Free Republic on the White House lawn, waving their big foam fingers in our faces going “nyah nyah nyah.”

Now that they’re out of power, natch, what choice do they have but to go shoot up church lobbies in the hopes of bagging abortion doctors for their trophy wall of American apostates? Really, what else could they do? It’s not like they could vote, or convince other people to listen to them, or organize, or do any of the damn things I feel like we’ve been doing since before there was dirt in order to get a not-entirely-crazy in-another-life-he’d-be-a-moderate-Republican dude finally elected so a third of the country could act like Satan just put his feet up on their mother’s white-clothed dinner table.”

That is, in fact, the way I felt for much of those eight years. And I had a lot more excuse for feeling that the political process had been closed to me: after all, my candidate for President actually won the election in 2000, for all the good it did him. And yet, somehow, I managed not to kill anyone. Funny thing, that.