President Obama faces what can only be described as a moral dilemma when it comes to dealing with the past sins of his predecessor’s administration. It is one that I am sure troubles him greatly, as it does me. Much as we like to think moral decisions are simple and self-evident, many are in fact complex, and can’t necessarily be made in isolation. They often carry with them unintended moral consequences. That is exactly the case in our (not only his) present situation. On the one hand we have what are euphemistically called “detainees”, an umbrella term that conjures up images of open-ended incarceration, general abuse, outright torture and overdue adjudication. On the other, and make no mistake this is the core of the moral dilemma, we have the denial of access to healthcare for millions and a growing unemployment that has not only taken jobs from the working, but has dropped the structurally unemployed yet another rung lower on the ladder of survival. Notice I didn’t say success. Each of these, sorting out the truth of the past and finally righting our social system in the future, present moral issues because each impacts on the lives of human beings, not to mention the standards of our society.
The President has opted to make what some see as a pragmatic, and others may feel is a callous, choice: the future over the past. Frank Rich suggests in the NY Times today that the in the end he can’t avoid the past and will ultimately have to release those photos and establish some kind of truth commission. Perhaps, and my own instinct is to say, I hope so. But Obama appears to believe that doing so poses too high a risk, one that, Rich’s contention notwithstanding, potentially will destroy not facilitate his agenda. He has good reason to be concerned. For a long time now, the American public has shown little ability to focus on more than one subject at a time. We suffer a kind of mental retardation, fostered and fine-tuned by a media hungry for the kind of overwhelming stories that can drive ratings. Think OJ, but in all fairness think all the way back the William Randolph Hearst. Poignantly the deep financial trouble in which newspapers and the news media as a whole find themselves is only likely to exaggerate this self-serving need and worsen the situation.
Single stories, often shallow gossip and sensationalism, can (and do) suck the air out of everything else. Think about these potential competitors for attention: the sensational misdeeds of the Bush years against the dry complexities of universal health care and how it will be delivered. Is it any wonder that some conservatives, led on by the former Vice President, are now calling for full disclosure? You can bet they understand the President’s “pragmatic” decision well and, despite their trademark pious chest beating, morality doesn’t factor into this at all. It is the blood of debilitating distraction that they smell. In a perfect world, yes in a truly moral world, Barack Obama and we along with him, would not face this terrible dilemma, this need to make choices. That we are in this place, tells you how much trouble we’re really in, and none of us carries a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. The press is single focused and collectively we eat it up, or at least the majority of us while the rest are complicit in their silence. Detroit sells us environmentally disastrous vehicles and we buy them. It’s become impossible to discern the chicken from the egg.
The past and the future, a moral question? That’s easy. Reveal the past and improve the future; an unambiguous and consistent moral decision, but one that sadly may not reflect reality. The President may be making the wrong choice here, but he has perhaps overwhelming evidence to support his decision. Let’s also remember (as he probably does) that, while there is always ample time to consider the past, it may be running out to right the future. In that context, perhaps the trade here is one of morality delayed to obtain morality realized. It’s not pretty, but if we’re honest, we all make similar decision all the time. We’re imperfect.