Saturday, February 21, 2004
The most interesting thing about listening to Kerry's speech today is that it seems likely to harden the settled views of the person who hears it. The substance of the speech -- the wisdom of continued prosecution of the Vietnam war -- will be debated by historians for a long time (although I expect that it was, in fact, a very unwise war). Below the main argument, however, the careful listener can detect a strand in Kerry's thinking that has emerged as a major theme of liberal political argument in the last thirty years: the responsibility of individuals compared to the responsibility of the institutions that command them. In his testimony, Kerry describes in explicit terms the war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, and finds guilt not in the men who committed these crimes but in the policy that caused the men to be in Vietnam in the first place. He is almost an apologist for the perpetrators of My Lai.
This idea that institutions, policies and "systems" are the true cause of individual offenses is also central to left-liberal explanations for street crime in American cities and terrorism against civilians here and elsewhere. Did American soldiers rape Vietnamese women in the narrative, or did the Johnson and Nixon administrations create the conditions that made these offenses inevitable? Do terrorists murder civilians, or is it an understandable and predictable consequence of United States policy? Your own reaction to these questions will drive your reaction to the young John Kerry.