On or about Groundhog's Day, 2017, US President Donald Trump said that in responding to Iran, "Nothing is off the table." As I've pointed out with a similar comment by President Obama, the advantage of such comments are precisely in their ambiguity and imprecision; the disadvantage is in the immorality of precisely such ambiguity and imprecision.
Richard D. Erlich
1007 Arrowhead Drive, Apt. 2A
Oxford, Ohio 45056-2641
[Undated but it has to be 2006]
FOR RELEASE: Guest column 538 words
"All options are on the table"
A much-ignored passage in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four shows Winston Smith and Julia--the protagonists--being asked what they would be willing to do to aid the destruction of a vicious totalitarian state.
The supposed revolutionary O'Brien asks, "You are prepared to give your lives?"; they answer, "Yes." He raises the stakes, "You are prepared to commit murder? … To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?" "Yes."
O'Brien goes on to ask if they'd be willing to commit an increasingly vile series of crimes summed up with "to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?"
They answer "Yes," and O'Brien proceeds to a horrible example. "If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child's face--are you prepared to do that?" They answer "Yes"; given the horror of totalitarian rule, any means that would serve the resistance, they think, would be justified, up to and including throwing sulphuric acid, presumably highly concentrated sulphuric acid, in the face of a child (II.8).
I'd occasionally cite this passage back in the days of The Movement—the Civil Rights, Anti-War, Black Power, Feminist movements—when people would talk about achieving some worthy goal, "By any means necessary."
Does "any means" include throwing acid in the face of a child? Acts of terrorism that "may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people"?
I hoped to discourage talk about "any means necessary" and get people discussing what means, given our worthy goals, might be effective and moral.
"The end will justify the means," after all, is a statement of faith, "End" implies "outcome, consequences" as well as "goal," and one can never be certain of final outcomes as actions reverberate down the decades.
People in power who object, correctly, to "by any means necessary" from anti-governmental activists should apply the rule to themselves when they say, "All options are on the table."
If "All options are on the table" in dealing with Iran's producing atomic weapons, does that mean we're considering thermonuclear warfare against Iran?
We have the missiles, so the reduction of Teheran to sterile glass is an option. Or perhaps one atomic bomb--or just firebombing Iranian cities with concussion bombs and incendiaries?
If one responds that such actions are inconceivable, I'd ask that one to talk to the still-surviving survivors of World War II bombings of Rotterdam, London, Stalingrad, Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The destruction of cities is conceivable: it was conceived, attempted, and, sometimes, pretty thoroughly accomplished.
"A Bumper Stick Is Not a Philosophy, Charlie Brown," and we shouldn't demand much of dumb-ass clichés. I will, though, ask Americans to challenge powerful people when they use clichéd threats that are not only dumb-ass but amoral.
Literally amoral: The great moral obligation is to work through questions of ends and means. It is never ethical to avoid the question by falling back on vague threats like "By any means necessary" or "All options are on the table."
If you reject as evil the means/option of throwing acid in the face of even one child--however fine your goal--speak out against talk that includes options of killing thousands.
Richard D. Erlich is a retired English professor, currently living in Oxford, OH.