I think the first time I grappled with this question was in an undergraduate philosophy course. The professor was a Yalie, very very smart, and loved to provoke us. His job, after all. So one day, when a famous person had died, he said in his flippant way, “obviously this man was much more important than Joe Schmoe down the block, and the society should value him more, and try harder to protect him and tend to him if he’s sick, etc etc.”
And so we debated, in the way of young students. Who is to say that one man’s life is worth more than another’s? Maybe Mr Schmoe was a better husband/father than Einstein, where does that go in the balance scales of life? Yes, we will long remember Einstein, and no one remembers Schmoe except maybe his dear ones, but still…
In a way, there’s nothing to debate, because Einstein had a far greater effect on far more people than Schmoe did. But one of the great achievements of Western civilization is our conviction that every human life is precious, and that belief underlies the entire Judeo-Christian enterprise. So, while Einstein will live forever, as they say, Schmoe was endowed with the same fundamental rights, and in that sense Schmoe was as important as Einstein.
So what to do with those who laugh at us, and who despise our love of life? What of Nazis who murder millions who they judge unworthy or inferior? What of the Muslim terrorists who tell us that they will destroy Western civilization precisely because we value life while they embrace death, ours and their own? Do we ignore their threats, and treat them the same way as we treat one another?
I watched “Independence Day” over the weekend, which raises this issue very dramatically. The aliens arrive and target mankind for annihilation. We approach them in peace, with an outstretched hand; they blow us up. In the end, we have to fight, and a suitably diverse group from around the world defeats the aliens. But the stars are American: a black man and a white Jew. If not for their heroism, all the efforts of all the world’s citizens would have failed. Keep that thought for a few paragraphs.
It’s easy when the enemies aren’t even human, but in cases of human conflict we invariably take sides. Mostly we see conflicts as “us vs. them.” If Schmoe and Einstein were fighting to the death, we’d pick one and root for him. Right?
Well, not always. It’s not so simple. Lots of us didn’t take sides in the Iran-Iraq war, for example. I, for one, rooted for the war. And what about the cases where terrorists are fighting against a civilized country (even when its degree of “civilization” may be in doubt)? Do you root for the Chechens or the Russians? And how do you feel about ethnic terrorism against the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Back in that southern California classroom, plenty of us developed a real affection for Schmoe, and resented Einstein’s importance. It somehow felt wrong to say that, if you could only save one of them, it had to be the great genius. What’s wrong with rooting for the underdog? And so terrorists get a sympathy vote, just like Schmoe.
A lot of ideology rests on the love of Schmoe, even if he turns out to be a very nasty piece of work and wants us dead. At about the same time we were debating in our philosophy class, Norman Mailer was extolling the virtues of criminals, which had long been a staple of anti-bourgeois literature, especially in France, where the Marquis de Sade somehow became a culture hero. The nihilists couldn’t care less about Einstein; they wanted to blow up the entire society that made him possible. The Communists wanted Schmoe to become part of a new proletarian dictatorship, where Einstein could work, to be sure, but his work wouldn’t be any more important than Schmoe’s. The Nazis wanted Einstein dead because he was a filthy Jew, while if Schmoe had a few generations of Aryans to his record he’d be hailed as a member of the Master Race. In many corners of the Islamic world today, Schmoe’s in good shape if he’s a Muslim, while Einstein gets blown up or beheaded.
You see where I’m going, don’t you? After all these years, it seems more and more that my prof was right, most evidently in those cases when Schmoe, as he does so often, is trying to destroy a society that’s clearly better than his own. Do the lives of Daniel Pearl and his executioner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have the same value? I don’t think so.
Yet it’s notable how often Schmoe wins popular sympathy. All those “anti-war” people, for example, end up supporting killer Schmoes against our best, indeed the world’s best: the men and women of the American military. And while the anti-warriors are usually careful to tell us how much they “respect the troops” (which they don’t), it’s pretty clear that they consider a terrorist to be worth at least the same as a U.S. Marine.
Which is nuts.
In the “great debate” over Iran, you hardly ever hear any great concern over the fact that Iranian killers and their proxies are murdering and maiming American soldiers most every day. As if nobody really cared about our guys, who are defending a superior society and a superior culture against the depredations of terrorists from a tyrannical and fanatical regime that glorifies misogyny, stones adultresses to death, kills its critics, and rapes its prisoners as a matter of course.
A lot of the talk about the “Arab street” (which does not even exist), for example, is a reprise of the glorification of the weak, downtrodden working class (which does not exist either, although perhaps it did, once upon a time). They shouldn’t be glorified. They should be freed.
Somewhere in that pile of Schmoes, other Einsteins will be found.