The Grand Sez Who?

Bosnia and Universal Moral Authority

Last week the president went on national television to explain his decision to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia as part of a multinational effort to bring peace to that troubled region. I have purposefully refrained from commenting on the president’s proposal, because this is more a political question than a Christian one. But there’s another aspect of the agreement that reveals the moral bankruptcy that follows the rejection of ethical absolutes.

The Dayton Accords also require that the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic whom an international tribunal has indicted for war crimes, be removed from power.

Good idea. But that creates a dilemma: In a world that no longer believes in God or absolute truth, by what right does the international community make such a demand? What gives any tribunal the moral authority to judge governmental leaders for actions that take place within their sovereign borders?

The same week that the parties initialed the Dayton Accords, the U.N. observed the fiftieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. These trials made the term crimes against humanity part of our vocabulary. At the Nuremberg Trials, 22 Nazi leaders faced unprecedented charges—crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg came to stand for two fundamental legal and moral propositions. The first is that there is a standard of decency legally binding upon all nations irrespective of culture, creed, or history. Second, the claim “I was only following orders” is no excuse. A soldier is expected to refuse an immoral order.

At Nuremberg the Russians wanted a kangaroo court. The U.S., led by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in his finest hour, resisted the demand for revenge. Instead, the U.S. succeeded in establishing a precedent that there was a universal moral standard that superseded national boundaries.

What made this possible was that Justice Jackson lived in a time when men and women acknowledged the moral tenets of the Western Christian tradition.

To our great loss that is no longer true—and here’s the quandary: People who reject a transcendent moral order established by God nevertheless continue to insist on prosecuting individuals for violating this order. It’s what Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson calls the “modernist impasse”—the tension between the necessity of appealing to a higher standard and being unable to do so.

Appeals to morality can thus be brushed aside with what the late Arthur Leff of Yale Law School called the “grand sez who!” Who says that “ethnic cleansing” and genocide is wrong? Who says that following orders doesn’t absolve me?

Tragically, the rejection of moral absolutes has left us with the inability to condemn genocide.

So when you discuss the president’s proposal regarding Bosnia with your neighbors and co-workers, point out that the only basis for trying people for “crimes against humanity” is belief in a moral law that transcends borders and applies to everyone.

Only then can there be any hope of restoring moral sanity to our troubled world.


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