Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and The Unspeakble

On August 19, 2012, Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for the Senate, said this when asked in a TV interview whether he supported keeping abortion legal in cases of rape:

"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare.  If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [pregnancy] down."

Today is August 21, 2012, and after 48 hours of furious blowback, it seems certain that Akin's political career is over.  He must decide in the next hour whether or not to stay on the ballot, but the Republican National Committee, most GOP PACs, Mitt Romney, and nearly everyone else has withdrawn their support. Akin has cut a humiliating ad asking voters for forgiveness, but it seems certain he will not receive it.

Todd Akin has spoken the unspeakable.  He must go.

I don't disagree with this conclusion.  For my own part, I'm simply shocked that a grown, married man who wanted to be a member of the most powerful legislative body on earth could be so ignorant about rape and human reproduction.  I'm also disturbed by his implication that some rape victims are less innocent than others, and that this distinction should have any bearing on abortion law.  I certainly don't want to see him in the Senate.

But it's led me to wonder why certain moments of unguarded candor lead to political destruction, while others do not.

Consider this statement from journalist Thomas Friedman in May 2003:

And the relevant excerpt:

"What they [Middle Easterners] needed to see was American boys and American girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand?  You don't think we care about our open society?   Well suck on this!' That was what this war was about.  We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  We could have hit Pakistan.  We hit Iraq because we could.  That's the real truth."

In context, the "this" in "suck on this" refers to a recently-completed bombing campaign and ground invasion that killed thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, crippled or maimed tens of thousands of people for life, and destroyed much of Iraq's critical infrastructure.

Surely, on balance, Friedman's defense of this deliberately-created horror on the grounds that Middle Easterners needed to be intimidated (terrorized?) is a far worse rhetorical sin than Akin's ignorance about the crime of rape. Even President Bush, when he was making his case for war, had to argue that the invasion, with all its attendant horrors, was the only alternative to the much greater threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.  He would never have dared to say, "It's because we can."

Friedman's analysis elicited outrage in antiwar circles on the internet, but in few other places - much like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children under the UN sanctions regime were "worth it." (We could multiply examples here, obviously.)

Friedman has gone on to author multiple bestsellers, and remains a widely-read and respected columnist at the New York Times.

I don't really have a complete thought to offer here, unless it's this: our taboos tell us a lot about our society.

Ordering the deaths of thousands of Arabs?  Not taboo.

Defending the killing of thousands of Arabs because other Arabs "needed to see it"? Not taboo.

Fighting to criminalize abortion, even in the case of rape?  Not taboo. (Stick around, though.)

Fighting to criminalize abortion while not understanding the basics of the female reproductive system?  Hit the showers.


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