Abstract People

by Thomas Sowell, 1/28/2002

       Most people have to deal with the reality that confronts them. They start with that reality and try to do the best they can within its limitations and within their own limitations.
       But there are large and growing numbers of people—especially among the intelligentsia—whose starting point is some abstraction that they wish to apply to reality. For example, even in the face of a worldwide terrorist organization that has declared open warfare on every American man, woman and child, those whose starting point is abstraction focus on the “civil rights” of terrorists.
       No one in World War II worried about Hitler’s or Goering’s civil rights. The very concept would have been considered absurd. Hitler and Goering were not part of our civil world. In fact, they were trying to destroy that world and replace it with their own tyranny. That is exactly what the world terrorist networks are trying to do today.
       How can anyone have rights within a framework that he rejects and is trying to destroy? Rights are not just abstractions plucked out of thin air. Rights are part of a whole set of mutual obligations binding people together. If enemy soldiers have any rights, it is as a result of international agreements such as the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. And they have those rights only after they have surrendered and become prisoners of war.
       So long as they are still fighting, enemy soldiers do not even have the right to live, without which all other rights are meaningless. If these enemy soldiers have infiltrated wearing civilian clothes or disguised in the uniform of some other country, then they can be killed legally, even after surrendering. Spies have been shot or hanged for centuries.
       At one time, all this would have been considered too obvious to require saying. But today, when some people talk blithely about “animal rights,” as if animals were part of some system of mutual obligations, even the obvious has to be explained to some of the products of our dumbed-down education.
       A sense of decency limits what we do to enemies or to animals, but this is not a matter of rights, civil or otherwise. Nor is it a threat to the rights of American citizens when we fail to treat foreign terrorists as if they were American citizens. Citizens are people who have a legal obligation to play by certain rules, and who are therefore protected by that same national system of rules. But people who are trying to destroy both the citizens and the rules they live by have no such claim.
       The hand-wringers among us seem to be worried that foreign terrorists are not being treated as nicely as they would like or that illegal aliens from the Middle East will be “singled out” to be sent back where they came from. In the abstract, there is no more reason to focus on Middle Eastern males than on Scandinavian females, when it comes to deporting illegal aliens. It is just that we do not live in the abstract. We live in the world that exists. And we want to keep on living.
       Some of these hand-wringers even seem to think that we have to “set an example” that will vindicate us in the eyes of “world opinion.” In short, they put these abstractions first—ahead of the deadly realities facing us now and in the years ahead.
       Why the United States of America needs to vindicate itself in the eyes of the despotic and failing governments that make up much of the rest of the world is a mystery. Whether foreigners will in fact respect us for bending over backward or despise us for our apologetic weakness is another question.
       Worse yet, other nations considering whether to cooperate or ally themselves with us—at some risk to themselves—will have to consider whether we are dependable and realistic enough to make the gamble worthwhile or whether we are terminally addicted to shibboleths that can jeopardize ourselves and them.
       The great political affliction of the 20th century was putting abstractions ahead of flesh-and-blood human beings, especially in ideological totalitarian states under Nazism and Communism. Do we need to repeat that staggering tragedy in the 21st Century?