I first encountered concerns about my tendency toward "moral equivalence" in the early 1980s when -- as an Associated Press reporter -- I interviewed Elliott Abrams, then an up-and-coming neoconservative appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the assistant secretary of state for human rights.
At an informal get-to-know-you meeting, I asked Abrams why he so heartily denounced Nicaragua's Sandinista government for imposing restrictions on the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, while quieting U.S. condemnations of El Salvador's right-wing military regime for slaughtering thousands of students, labor leaders, clergy and other dissidents.
At that time, there were far more violent human rights abuses occurring in El Salvador (and Guatemala) than in Nicaragua, but the Reagan administration was putting the squeeze on the Sandinistas and letting up on the region's right-wing killers.
Abrams looked at me askance and cautioned that I was edging close to the error of "moral equivalence" -- that is applying a common human rights standard to pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. countries. Abrams explained that the actions of "totalitarian" states like Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua and "authoritarian" regimes like El Salvador should not be viewed on the same plane.
Abrams's thinking fit with the then-in-vogue theory of Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who held that while right-wing "authoritarian" states could reform, left-wing "totalitarian" states could only be stopped through violent regime change. Therefore, leftist offenses were more grievous than right-wing ones, even if less overtly brutal.
Under this so-called Kirkpatrick Doctrine, Abrams saw the Sandinistas, who were restricting La Prensa -- which they correctly suspected of aiding a U.S. "destabilization" campaign -- as far worse human rights violators than El Salvador's military rulers, though the bodies were piling up in El Salvador, not Nicaragua.
But the problem for me as a journalist, committed to the principle of objectivity, was that I wouldn't apply an obvious double standard -- playing up non-violent political violations in states opposed by the U.S. government while downplaying brutal human rights crimes in "allied" countries.
It turned out that many of my mainstream journalistic colleagues proved to be much more flexible in adapting to the Reagan administration's edicts on "moral equivalence." It worked out well for many careers.
(By the end of the 1980s, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine would be proven false as formerly communist states peacefully evolved into democracies.)
The Gunter Grass Case
Those memories about my alleged "moral equivalence" flooded back to me this week when I read the New York Times coverage of a nasty dispute in which Israeli leaders launched an all-out P.R. assault against 84-year-old German poet Gunter Grass for writing a brief poem, "What Must Be Said," criticizing Israeli war threats against Iran.
One of the angriest Israeli accusations against Grass -- echoed in the news columns of the New York Times and among German officials -- was the poet's alleged offense of treating Israel and Iran as moral equivalents, or as the Times put it "placing Israel and Iran on the same moral plane."
"Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd," declared German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
But what exactly had Grass said in that regard? I went looking for an English translation of the actual poem (since German had been my worst class in college). I found an unofficial translation from the Associated Press which is reprinted below.
I was struck by how tendentious the attacks had been on Grass's supposed moral equivalence toward Israel and Iran. That portion of the poem simply says both Iran and Israel should admit international inspectors to examine their nuclear programs.
Grass recommends that "an unhindered and permanent control of the Israeli nuclear potential and the Iranian nuclear sites be authorized through an international agency by the governments of both countries."