Democracy might be defined as the form of government under which nobody is innocent.
Everyone in a democracy shares power and therefore responsibility. The guilt for evil policies is also widely distributed among all who support such policies.If this sounds like an overstatement, well, maybe it is. But I think it's closer to the truth than the complacent assumption that a democracy is automatically virtuous.
These thoughts are inspired by the bizarre proposal, now being lobbed around in some conservative circles, that the United States should use nuclear weapons against Iraq. As Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up.
A proposal surfaced in print in the Aug. 10 issue of The Washington Inquirer, a conservative weekly, in a lead article by Reed Irvine titled (we are not making this up, either) ``How to Save Kuwait.'
Mr. Irvine reports that the Inquirer's editor in chief, Wilson C. Lucom, sent President Bush a letter on Aug. 6 arguing that ``if diplomatic efforts, sanctions, and international condemnation did not persuade Hussein to pull back, he should be given an ultimatum: Withdraw from Kuwait or the United States will employ nuclear weapons.'
Mr. Irvine, best known as the head of Accuracy in Media, endorses the idea and cites a list of other conservatives, including several retired generals and admirals, who he says support it too. They argue that the atomic bomb wouldn't actually have to be dropped; the threat alone would work.
But what if the threat failed? ``It has to be a credible threat,' Mr. Irvine told me in a radio discussion. Which means, he finally admitted, that yes, if Saddam Hussein called our bluff, we'd have to drop the bomb on Iraq.
Let's be clear about this. What Mr. Irvine and others are urging is mass murder. They don't call it that, and they don't like to think of it that way, but that's what it is: a deliberate killing of countless innocent people.
Even if it were a bluff, it would be worse than anything Saddam Hussein - the new Hitler - has done to us. He has taken a few thousand civilians as hostages. This is wrong, but he has done it for the purpose of deterring an attack. He isn't even threatening to hurt them.
But what these conservatives are saying is that we should hold Iraq's entire civilian population hostage - with the serious intention of killing a huge number of them if their ruler, for whom (since he is unelected) they can't be held responsible, doesn't comply with our demands.
Put otherwise: In order to prevent a future (and purely hypothetical) threat from Saddam Hussein, we should immediately do the very thing he is accused of hoping to do someday.
Yes, we should think of the future. And one of the things we should think of is how we'd feel in five years if we looked back on having committed mass murder. The rest of the world, including the democracies, would regard us with moral horror. And we would know they were right.
What is conservatism, anyway? It used to mean the disposition to resist the political passions of the moment and to sprinkle a little cool skepticism on the more fiery enthusiasms. But in some quarters it has come to mean the most rash and extreme militarism.
Since the Middle Ages, serious moral thinkers have tried to define the terms of civilized warfare, and one of the few things the West has generally agreed on is that civilians should be spared. This rule has been broken countless times, like most moral rules, but that's no reason to abandon it.
``One death is a tragedy,' Stalin observed. ``A million deaths is a statistic.' Maybe if we singled out one Iraqi child by name, and threatened to kill her if Saddam Hussein doesn't withdraw from Iraq, it would be clearer to the advocates of what Mr. Irvine calls a ``nuclear response' how monstrous a thing they are suggesting. Somehow it seems easier to kill a million.