I'M GOING to keep to very simple truths. Moral truisms are so widely rejected-and the human consequences are quite serious. They are often disdained by the powerful who set the rules. We have just been living through a period that dramatically illustrates this. The last millennium ended and the new one started with an extraordinary period of self adulation by Western intellectuals.
They praised themselves, and their leaders, for introducing a "noble phase of foreign policy with a saintly glow". This has now developed further into Bush's messianic mission to "graft democracy onto the rest of the world".
There is a new norm in international affairs-the right of "enlightened states" to resort to force to protect people suffering at the hands of "evil monsters". Such norms are established by the powerful, in their own interests, and with the acclaim of "responsible" intellectuals.
Sometimes this is explicitly recognised. The norm for post World War Two international justice was established at the Nuremberg trials. To bring the Nazi war criminals to trial it was necessary to formulate new definitions for crimes against humanity. Edward Teller was the chief council for the prosecution.
He has explained how this was done: "Since both sides in World War Two had played the terrible game of urban destruction, the allies far more successfully, there was no basis for criminal charges against Germans and Japanese and no such cases were brought. Aerial bombardment had been used so extensively and ruthlessly on both sides that the issue was not a big part of the trial."
That gives us the operative definition of a crime-a crime is something that "they" carried out, and which "we" did not. The Associated Press recently reported from Iraq, "If Iraqis ever see Saddam Hussein in the dock, they want to see his former US allies shackled beside him." The victors are immune, not only from punishment, but even from acknowledgement of their crimes.
The one exception to this actually underscores the rule. Punishment is permissible when blame can be attached to minor figures, particularly when they are not like "us". It was considered proper to punish the soldiers who carried out the My Lai massacre-half-educated, half-crazed GIs.
But it was inconceivable that punishment would reach as high as those who organised the mass murder operation of which My Lai was a minor part. The gentlemen in the air-conditioned offices are like "us" and therefore immune. We are witnessing similar things now in Iraq.
Bush proclaims that "God told me to strike at Al Qaida and destroy them. He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. And now I am determined to solve the problems of the Middle East." The early colonists in North America were following the "word of the lord" as they slaughtered the Native Americans.
They were defending themselves against "the merciless Indian savages unleashed against them by George III"-that's a quote from the Declaration of Independence. At other times they were defending themselves from "runaway niggers and lawless Indians" who were attacking innocent Americans. That's a quote from Quincy Adams in a state paper written to justify the conquest of Florida in 1818.
Long after his own grisly contribution had passed Adams deplored "the fate of that hapless race of Native Americans who we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty". He went on, "This is among the heinous sins of our nation for which I believe god will one day bring it to judgement."
The first secretary of war had, years earlier, warned, "A future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colours." But both were wrong. God and the historians are slow in fulfilling the task. There is no reaction when a distinguished historian explains, in a standard text, after their liberation from English rule the colonists "concentrated on their task of felling trees and Indians".
Sports teams use victims of genocide as mascots. Weapons of mass destruction are given their names-Apache helicopters and Tomahawk missiles. We might ask how we would react if the German Luftwaffe named its lethal weapons Jew and Gypsy. The common response of the intellectuals is natural, if you ignore moral truisms.
The US Senate has just now given its consent to the appointment of John Negroponte as ambassador to Iraq. He has the task of fulfilling Bush's messianic vision to bring democracy to the Middle East-or so we are solemnly informed.
This goal is presupposed in the reporting, although realists warn that the noble and generous goal may be beyond our reach. As the Economist magazine poses the problem, "America's mission of turning Iraq into an inspiring example of democracy to its neighbours is facing obstacles."
The almost universal acceptance of this by Western intellectuals is shared by some Iraqis-1 percent in Baghdad believe that the purpose of the invasion was to bring democracy, according to US-run polls. Most of the rest take it for granted that the goal was to gain control of Iraq's resources and to use Iraq as a base for reorganising the Middle East in line with US interests.
Britain's creation of modern Iraq was accompanied by statements of virtuous intent. It was also accompanied by secret documents in which Lord Curzon developed the plans to establish "an Arab facade" in which Britain would rule behind various constitutional fictions.
The contemporary version was provided by a senior British official who put it delicately: "The Iraqi government will be fully sovereign but, in practice, it will not exercise all of its sovereignty." As Negroponte was appointed, the Wall Street Journal had an article praising him as a modern "proconsul" who had learned his trade in Honduras in the 1980s. He presided over the second largest embassy in Latin America with the largest CIA station in the world.
The Wall Street Journal's Carla Anne Robbins observes that Negroponte has been criticised by human rights activists for "covering up abuses by the Honduran military". That is a euphemism for large-scale state terror. He did this to "continue the flow of US aid to this vital country which was the base for the US's covert war against Nicaragua".
His main task was to supervise the bases where the mercenary army was armed, trained and sent on its missions, including attacking undefended civilian targets.
The policy of attacking "soft targets" was defended by leading US liberal intellectuals, notably Michael Kinsley. He chastised Human Rights Watch for "sentimentality" in condemning US international terrorism, saying that this had to be evaluated using "pragmatic criteria".
"A sensible policy should meet the test of cost-benefit analysis: an analysis of the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end," he said. It turned out the operation was a huge success. Nicaragua was reduced to the second poorest state in the hemisphere.
The country suffered casualties which, in per capita terms, are comparable to 2.5 million dead in the US-a death toll significantly higher than the number of Americans killed in the US Civil War and all of the wars in the 20th century combined.
In my office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology I have a painting on my wall given to me by a Jesuit priest. It depicts the angel of death standing over Salvadorean Archbishop Romero, whose assassination in 1980 opened the grim decade of state-sponsored terrorist atrocities.
Before him are the figures of six leading Latin American intellectuals, also Jesuits, whose brains were blown out in 1989, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The intellectuals were murdered by an elite battalion, armed and trained by the current incumbents in Washington and their mentors.
The battalion had already compiled a bloody record of massacres in the US-run terrorist campaign, which archbishop Romero's successor described as a "war of extermination and genocide against a defenceless civilian population". I keep the painting there to remind myself daily of the real world. But it also serves another purpose.
Many visitors pass through my office. Those from Latin America almost unfailingly recognise the painting. Those from North America virtually never do. From Europe the recognition is perhaps 10 percent.
Suppose that in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s security forces armed and trained at the Kremlin had assassinated an archbishop who was known as "the voice of the voiceless". Suppose then that they proceeded to massacre tens of thousands of people, consummating the decade with the murder of Vaclav Havel and half a dozen other leading Czech intellectuals.
Would we know about it? Well, perhaps not, because the Western reaction may have gone as far as nuclear war. The crimes of our enemies take place. "Our" crimes do not.