Make-believe Ethics

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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Here’s an ethical puzzle: Suppose you are the head of a major American institution that wields influence around the world. You come across what seems to be solid evidence of mischief-making in America’s relations with the Islamic world. The evidence isn’t airtight, but you go with it. The result, unanticipated, is mayhem: bloodshed beyond your worst imaginings, and grave damage to America’s image in the Muslim world and beyond. What do you do next?

If you’re the editor of Newsweek, and you’ve just published a damaging story about alleged desecration of the Koran, you go back and check your sources, and if it looks like you got it wrong, you admit it. You issue new guidelines to try and prevent such mistakes in the future. In penance, you publish reams of outraged letters from readers accusing you of everything from mendacity to treason.

If, on the other hand, you are the president of the United States, and you’ve just launched a war based on false weapons intelligence, you pretend not to notice that anything went wrong. You let your aides continue to insist the intelligence might yet prove true, while at the same time acting as though the weapons weren’t the reason for the war in the first place, regardless of what you said before. You launch a half-dozen investigations into the failures of those who gathered the intelligence, but block any attempt to look at how you used the intelligence.

And, as the war rages on, with the death toll steadily mounting and no end in sight, you continually praise your own wisdom for having dragged the country into the quagmire. You pretend we’re winning. And you act as though the mounting wall of Muslim suspicion and rage that America faces around the world were the fault of — who else? — the media.

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