It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Scripps-Howard News Service 1.30.02
Balint Vazsonyi

"Meanwhile, Germany called in the American ambassador to express its concerns about human rights." (From the New York Times, discussing "The Treatment" of captive terrorists on January 27.)

Before commenting in depth, here are a few news items to be expected if the present trend continues:

The Sudan will warn England to observe the rule of law.

The Republic of Ireland will officially protest insufficient variety in French cooking.

Romania will complain about the state of hygiene in American hospitals.

The Democratic Republic of Congo will publicly criticize architectural styles in Italy.

Saudi Arabia will call for greater religious freedom in the Netherlands.

And why not? Saudi Arabia has now taken to offering advice to the president of the United States about foreign policy. Next they will tell us how to barbecue pork ribs.

A concert pianist's life is deeply anchored in things German. While it is wonderful to have Scarlatti, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy or Bartók, without the output of German-speaking composers we would find ourselves without a core repertoire - indeed, we would find ourselves without Chopin, Liszt, Debussy or Bartók. Music became an art form on par with the visual arts and literature when Germans applied their intellect to the Italian gift of producing melodies. It is not a coincidence that the composer most able to combine German and Italian aspects of the art is winning so many converts to classical music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthday coincided with the New York Times article cited above.

German names also fill the annals of the sciences. The number and range of contributions to physics or medicine is legion. And in literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is second only to William Shakespeare.

But when it comes to human rights, Germany needs to continue keeping a low profile, as instituted and practiced by the wise men of immediate post-war Germany - Konrad Adenauer and Theodor Heuss. Long before the horrors of the Third Reich, the proverbial German was known as the proverbial "subject," subordinating himself to higher authority with unparalleled gusto. And, predictably, when these "subjects" were given their own blanket authority over other human beings, the extent of their inhumanity presented a puzzle the world is still trying to solve. How could the sons and daughters of a supposedly highly civilized country behave like beasts and monsters on the loose?

Germans like to write. They write a great deal. And the writings provide at least some of the explanation. An unending line of philosophers was unleashed upon the world with the emergence of Immanuel Kant who, in his "Critic of Pure Reason," declares himself on par with God. "I chose this only path," he explains in the Preface,"and flatter myself thus having succeeded in avoiding all those errors that have set reason against itself."

With one or two exceptions, German thinkers may be noted for the total absence of doubt about the correctness of their view and evaluation of the world. More importantly, from Hegel to Heidegger, from Marx to Marcuse, through the Frankfurt School and its New York chapter, the New School for Social Research, an utter contempt for mankind is the underlying message.

But even the headlines of the great French Revolution of 1789, "Egality, Fraternity, Liberty," turned out to be something the French like to shout from the rooftops, rather than principles by which to live. No - human rights probably began in the souls of Englishmen who gave birth to a legend in which people sit at a round table. The round table, affording no place of precedence even to Arthur the King, expressed man's yearning for that most important human right: equal treatment before the law. The Magna Carta followed, and so did the Constitution of the United States of America.

Where do the captives at Guantanamo fit into our traditions of equal treatment? Those lofty principles are based upon reciprocity. We have certain rights because we recognize and guarantee those same rights to others around us. The terrorists do not recognize our rights, therefore they have none themselves. Mere biological conformity - such as walking erect and having a rotating thumb - is insufficient for equal treatment.

Before we bind ourselves by laws, we are driven by instincts and reflexes. Foremost among these is the instinct to survive. Members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda openly threaten to use any and all means to terminate our existence. The restraints imposed on them merely reduce the risk to fellow Americans who volunteer to facilitate our survival.

And, incidentally, Germany's, too.