Moral relativism won't defeat terrorists

In the season finale this past spring of NBC's "The West Wing," President Jed Bartlet struggles to decide whether to order the assassination of the foreign minister of Qumari (a fictitious Middle Eastern state) who is a known terrorist. The climactic scene shows the president arguing against the idea with his no-nonsense chief of staff, who, at one point, says something to the effect of: "The most horrifying aspect of your liberalism is that you think there are moral absolutes." The president felt that it wasn't worth sacrificing the basic principles of humanity to order an assassination. The chief of staff thought the assassination, while morally dubious, would ultimately save the lives of thousands who would suffer if the foreign minister stayed in power. The plot thickens.

A similar back-and-forth has played out between a US District Court judge in Washington and the State Department over the past few weeks in a federal case of corporate human rights abuse in Indonesia. International Labor Rights Fund, a human rights group in Washington, has filed a lawsuit alleging that the ExxonMobil Corporation looked the other way when its security guards, who are members of Indonesia's military, carried out torture, rape, and extrajudicial execution while guarding its plant in war-torn Aceh. The State Department recently answered a query by Exxon for its input on the possible foreign policy ramifications of allowing the lawsuit to proceed. The State Department's recommendation in a letter to the judge: The case should be dismissed because, if litigated, the matter could offend the Indonesian government, resulting in the possibility of even greater human rights abuse, and a cold shoulder from America's most important ally in the war on terror.

So now the real-life judge (Judge Louis Oberdorfer), in considering the State Department's recommendation and deciding whether to dismiss the case, faces fictitious President Bartlet's quandary: Is calling Exxon to account for its complicity in human rights abuse a moral absolute? Or can diplomatic concerns outweigh that imperative, effectively putting justice on hold?

In the first place, the State Department's reasons for dismissal are not all terribly pressing – or even legitimate – foreign policy concerns. For instance, it states in its letter that the lawsuit might anger Indonesia to the point where it would drop its ties to American businesses and partner instead with countries less concerned about human rights, such as China. If American businesses don't behave better than those from less-enlightened countries, what's the point of State supporting them in the first place? The argument chases its tail.

A closer question is whether jeopardizing America's relationship with a major ally in the war on terror outweighs the importance of seeing a company answer to exploitative and harmful business practices. Moderate Muslim areas of southeast Asia are already a significant investment for the Bush administration: 1,200 American troops in the Philippines have just spent half a year training the military in counterterrorism fundamentals, and Indonesia, eager to impress its new Western friend, has deported scores of Middle Eastern Muslims on charges of collusion with Al Qaeda. Without Indonesia on our side, many say, terrorists fleeing central Asia will soon make the southeast their new headquarters.

Yet, I argue that a moral absolute exists. There are certain basic rights, standards, and freedoms that must not be compromised, even to avoid future turmoil. Among them are freedom from torture, rape, and murder, and the concomitant promise that when such freedoms are taken away, the law will find out why.

Sweeping under the rug ExxonMobil's role in unspeakable acts against the citizens of Aceh – like ordering the assassination of a despicable foreign leader – is tantamount to giving up the principles we fight for as we fight against terrorism: The means are poisoned and they sour the end.

Thus a triumph in the war on terror achieved by ignoring human rights abuse would be hollow because America's cherished principles – freedom, transparency in government, and above all, human dignity – would have been abandoned in the relentless drive for victory, making us no better than the terrorists we pursue.

Allowing Exxon to walk free is a moral failure, regardless of its perceived long-term benefits, not to mention a hypocritical betrayal of this country's new drive toward corporate responsibility.

President Bartlet, under pressure from his chief of staff, ultimately falters in his moral stand and orders the assassination. Here's hoping that Judge Oberdorfer won't do the same.

• Mike O'Donnell is a researcher at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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