Our National Crimes And Others'

April 22, 1997|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

BROADWAY, Va. -- Sometimes I'm alarmed by the judgments I hear people make. But sometimes what troubles me is not the conclusion they reach so much as the ease with which they come to their judgments, as if it were an open-and-shut case. That's how it was on a recent "This Week" program on ABC.

As the gang discussed Vice President Gore's trip to China, the conservative pundit William Kristol complained about Mr. Gore's having conceded that, while China's blot is the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the United States, too, has committed great wrongs. What made the statement really ludicrous in Mr. Kristol's eyes was Mr. Gore's choice of an illustrative American sin: the 19th-century slaughter -- to the verge of extinction -- of the great herds of American buffalo.

Mr. Kristol did not like the vice president's conceding any such moral ground to the Chinese, but he was also saying something else. How bizarre and foolish to equate these two crimes -- the Chinese massacre of the protesting students and the American slaughter of these animals.

Only a tree-hugger

My concern here is not with Mr. Kristol's larger point about the Clinton administration's conduct of Sino-American relations. It is rather with how ridiculous he thought the comparison, and with how his companions -- ABC's triumvirate of George Will, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, who are paid to sit there and disagree with each other in interesting and entertaining ways -- offered not a murmur of dissent. They joined Mr. Kristol with smiles and nods and rolling of eyes, as if only a far-out tree-hugger like Vice President Ozone could think of comparing these misdeeds.

What is frightening to me is the mindset that makes it so easy for a group of intelligent and "reasonable" American pundits to leap to such a judgment.

Let's concede that Tiananmen was as evil a deed -- the snuffing out of a noble movement for liberty, and of hundreds, perhaps as many as 2,000 innocent lives -- as we Americans have regarded it as being. (And let us give no weight to the fears of Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping, arising from their own bitter experience of how political upheaval, during this century of China's troubled emergence into the modern world, can result in the deaths not of thousands but of tens of millions.)

Let us disregard also that the American crime against the bison was also arguably a form of warfare on other human beings, that the wanton destruction of these enormous animals for their hides and heads (leaving great carcasses of meat behind to rot) may well have been a way of starving into submission or extinction the Great Plains Indians whose lands the United States want to steal, in violation of treaty commitments freely and solemnly entered into by our government.

Destruction for sport

Let's just consider what it means to destroy an entire ecosystem, stretching across the heart of a continent, for sport, for the thrill of domination and for the acquisition of trophies to be sold on the market for cash.

This was the same American century that saw Americans recklessly clear-cut vast ranges of virgin hardwood forests in the Upper Midwest, so that the Mississippi River was choked with their floating trunks heading toward the sawmills.

This was the same spirit of profligate destruction of nature's bounty that James Fenimore Cooper memorably depicted in his novel "The Pioneers," where great flocks of passenger pigeons -- on their way, as it turned out, to complete extinction -- were blown out of the air just for fun.

This was the America in which our forebears could stand before the Giant Sequoia and see nothing more worthy of their reverence than an unusual number of board feet growing out of a single stump.

And while some of our countrymen came close to removing the great bison from the earth, others, in the beautiful forested mountains of California, were using poisons and water to get a few nuggets of gold indifferent to the cost of destroying whole habitats that have still not recovered after more than a century.

How would God compare these crimes that Vice President Gore laid side by side? I would not profess to know.

But in an era when the trial of O.J. Simpson got more media coverage in a day than the ongoing extinction of countless species across this living planet gets in a decade; in which the most influential among us show more concern for reducing the tax on capital gains than on slowing the disappearance -- now at the rate of a couple thousand acres every hour -- of the earth's tropical rain forests; and in which we scream bloody murder at the idea of curtailing our use of fossil fuels to slow our potentially dangerous alteration of the earth's climate -- in such an era, Mr. Gore's comparison seems far from ludicrous to me.

What arrogance it is -- what small-mindedness -- for a creature to see only in himself a reflection of the image of God. I do not imagine that the Creator can be much pleased for such a creature to hold in his hands the fate of the Creation.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's latest book is "Living Posthumously: Confronting the Loss of Vital Powers" (Henry Holt).

Pub Date: 4/22/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.