Nancy Pelosi is a liberal politician who has helped inject morality and human rights into foreign affairs. Amnesty International has played an even larger role in that positive development. But they and other parts of the anti-imperialist, anti-establishment left they represent now sound out of sync with a world changed by international terrorism.
There have been few sharper or clearer critics of the abuse of citizens by China's communist leaders than Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco who recently became the House minority leader. But as I listened to her during a recent television interview deflect serious questions about the rights and wrongs of going to war in Iraq to end crimes against humanity there, I wondered where her voice had gone.
Amnesty International has a long, honorable record of speaking truth to power. I view it as an ally in the castigation of governments that jail, torture and kill citizens out of ideology or a lust for power and profit. But when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw this week catalogued the sordid record of human rights abuses by Iraq's regime, Amnesty responded not with applause but with a temper tantrum. Amnesty's secretary general, Irene Khan, did not deny the accuracy of the list of genocidal campaigns, poison gas use and systematic rape and torture of dissidents. She could not. Much of it came from Amnesty's own reporting. Instead, she attacked Straw for a "cold and calculated manipulation" of the work of human rights activists. By using the truth to seek public support for an impending intervention in Iraq, Straw had done something immoral, Khan suggested.
Focusing now on Jack Straw instead of Saddam Hussein is, to be polite, misguided. But this jerking of the anti-imperial knee is also representative of larger problems that liberals and even many moderates are having in finding their way amid the changes in politics, practicalities and philosophy being brought by an era of heightened societal vulnerability and security needs. They are against war -- who isn't? -- but unable to describe convincingly practical solutions or the values that they uniquely represent.
If not quite the dawn of creation, this is a time of significant adjustments in the daily lives and pocketbooks of all Americans. Our courts, bureaucracies and rules of war are being reshaped without clear answers to the practical questions of how permanent, how effective or how costly change will be.
It is vital for the voice of liberals and moderates who did not vote for George W. Bush to be heard and to have enough weight nationally and internationally to be taken into account. Every government needs to be constrained, to be forced to place limits on its impulses and actions. Politics is the art of the balance wheel.
This will require new thinking on the left, which seems mired in nostalgia for the eras when colonialism, apartheid and Cold War excess were obvious sources of global evil and easy targets. We must all continue to focus on human rights abuses by governments. But not at the price of ignoring or minimizing the threat of nihilism carried out by bands of fanatics who believe in and are capable of practicing what Albert Camus called "violence without limits."
The words of Camus come to mind from reading accounts of a wide-ranging and fortuitous reexamination of his work at the Pompidou Center in Paris last weekend. The French author is a useful guide for the thinking left in this time of terror, even though he was made a Nobel literature laureate 45 years ago next week and will have been dead 43 years next month.
In his native Algeria, Camus saw the effects both of politically inspired terrorism and government repression and overreaction. He developed a philosophy out of activism and morality to counter the logic of violence and absolutism, which then as now were intimately related. He shocked his progressive hosts in Stockholm in 1957 by first denouncing racist repression and then emotionally adding: "I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers, for example, and which someday could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice."
Camus believed at least two big things relevant to our present dilemma: Moral limits must be imposed on violence, which is nonetheless justifiable in certain circumstances. Camus was no pacifist.
In a time of unspeakable violence, he found a balance in the human condition between hope and despair. He spoke from the left about the need for action tempered by thought and humanism. It is a message that liberal politicians and organizations will continue to ignore at their peril.