Nothing so defines a society and a civilization like the distinctions it makes in matters of life and death. Nowhere is this view tested more dramatically than in our legal definitions of murder and the kind of killing that goes on in war.
Two stories in the news force us to define and refine our perceptions of who we are. One story focuses on a mother whose baby is killed just before it was to be born, the other about the harsh reality of killing of the enemy in war. Both tragedies have been reduced to politics.
Last week the House of Representatives passed legislation that makes a man who abuses his pregnant wife and kills the baby she carries a murderer.
This was an answer to the plaintive voice of a woman who told how her husband used her as a punching bag, killing the son who was to be born four days later. To regard this as anything but homicide is to make a euphemism of an obscenity. This is an elementary perception of any woman who has ever carried a child, felt life in her body or experienced the loss of that life. Congress is trying to find the right punishment to fit the crime, recognizing that depriving a human being of his life on the very eve of his birth is a crime unspeakable.
Abortion-rights advocates see this legislation as an assault on their legal rights, even though the bill specifically excludes abortion. "America is deeply divided about government interfering with the right to choose," says Rep. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, the Republican author of the bill, "but that doesn't mean we consider the unborn child an enemy."
You could ask the mom whose baby would have been born in four days. Feminists who struggled for equal rights and for protection against men who batter their wives suffer from blinding double-think when they defend this infanticide with double-talk. We haven't come such a long way after all, baby.
The 32-year-old story of tragedy wrought by Bob Kerrey's patrol in Vietnam magnify a gray complexity in the black and white reality of life and death. Nothing was abstract or theoretical about what the men he led into the village of Thanh Phong that February night in 1969 had to do. They had a mission to kill an enemy stalking Americans. They could hope to survive the mission, but they had no such assurance they would.
When it was over only the old, the female and the young lay dead. No matter how this tragedy came about, it was a variation on the theme that war, as the man who set fire to the South in our own civil war a century and a half ago famously said, "is hell." War spreads hate and guilt in its wake, as the men who have gone there know better than anyone else. The rules of war defend the soldier who defends his men. Bob Kerrey says he was fired upon before his men fired back and they were sent into Thanh Phong because they were told it was a village of the Viet Cong.
One of the most telling details in Sen. Kerrey's own words is his speculation that what happened in Thanh Phong put his men at risk in another patrol a month later. Chastened by the memories of the civilians who died at Thanh Phong, Kerrey decided in the later encounter to take the "targets as prisoners." He told Time magazine: "I think I almost got some of my men killed that night." The Viet Cong lost seven men, Bob Kerrey lost a leg and won the Medal of Honor.
Memories of long ago and far away make up Rashomon recollections from different perspectives. Eyewitness accounts of the Navy commandos as well as those of the villagers conflict and contradict, transformed into blood-red myth three decades later. The lasting scars of mortality of that war are indelibly engraved on the souls of the men who were there no less than on the black marble at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. The only certainties about what happened at Thanh Phong are held by those who were not there, but who seize on their speculations to condemn those who were.
Distinctions in matters of life and death count, and require moral exactness and ethical precision. Bob Kerrey is hardest on himself, filled with shame and haunted by what could have been. Those of the rest of us who insist on calibrating the guilt of others might do better to apply our outrage to the law that allows a man beat up his pregnant wife, kill her baby and get away with murder.