The late conservative intellectual Russell Kirk argued that “the great line of division in modern politics” is “between all those who believe in some sort of transcendent moral order, on one side, and on the other side all those who take this ephemeral existence of ours for the be-all and end-all.” Kirk specifically intended for a religious code to reign supreme, but his general framework is nonetheless useful in contrasting a much-needed human-rights politics with the amoral politics of nihilistic violence.
Although decent Americans across the political spectrum have long agreed that a meaningful “moral order” requires accountability for bullies who torture and kill the innocent, the American government has spent more than a century providing cover to human rights abusers all over the world. Under both Democrats and Republicans, our government has cozied up to dictators like Suharto, whose murderous cleansing of East Timor is hardly a blip on most Americans’ political radar, and General Pinochet, whose thugs brutalized, assassinated and raped innocent Chileans. At the School of the Americas, the Department of Defense instructed Argentines in the “art” of torture, and in Iraq, the American military apparatus collaborated with other Western powers to unleash chaos in a ruthless and illegal war.
If there is in fact an unyielding moral order, then respect for bodily integrity certainly defines it. In the radical future, we must use the political mechanisms available to us to stop state-sponsored torture and murder and to hold power brokers accountable for their complicity in gratuitous violence.