As Kabul falls under the control of the Taliban and our leaders again fail to do the right thing, I feel like a spectator at a Greek tragedy. Shrieking warnings from their seats, the crowd cannot fathom why the players onstage are blind to the catastrophe that we so clearly see coming. Will the inherent moral weaknesses of our leaders inevitably doom the world to continue to crash and burn? And can we hold them accountable for their tragic flaws?
In a section of his text Poetics, Aristotle describes a quality found in characters of Greek tragedy that he calls hamartia. He describes this quality as follows:
There remains then the man who occupies the mean between saintliness and depravity. He is not extraordinary in virtue and righteousness, and yet does not fall into bad fortune because of evil and wickedness, but because of some hamartia of the kind found in men of high reputation and good fortune, such as Oedipus and Thyestes and famous men of similar families.
Many people today translate hamartia as a tragic flaw or missing the mark. It helps explain why, for the most part, we believe that our elected leaders will make good decisions. Until they don’t.
The Gravity of Lifting Off the Moral Burden Too Soon
This past week has further challenged our belief in the ability of leadership to do the right thing despite best intentions. I am aghast at the abrupt and violent exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the bloody chaos still unfolding. I am dumbfounded by the U.S. intelligence community’s inability to predict the speedy fall of the Taliban. And I am incensed by my naïve president’s belief that the Taliban will honor the value of a human life according to western values.
Playing our role both as judge and jury (garbed in judicial terrycloth robes, coffee mug in hand), we mull over the chain of events from within the individual courtrooms of our minds. Was it an error in judgement from a good man? Or was our commander-in-chief hijacked by his moral weakness? Would any reasonably competent person holding the same information have made the same decision? Was the decision process mismanaged? Was some tragic flaw at work?
Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?
Greek philosophers, plumbing the depths of human fallibility, have long debated the extent of the role a person plays in the course of events. Are morals just helpless pawns in the hands of cosmic forces? Or do we create reality with the choices we make? At the crossroads of destiny where we can choose between alternative courses of action, are we capable of judging situations correctly? Or will character flaws and mortal weakness distort our views of what is right?
Could that explain why essentially “good people” fail to do what appears to be the right thing to everyone else?
Apparently so. Greek mythology abounds with tales of good Joes whose moral weaknesses unleash far-reaching catastrophic consequences that reverberate for generations to come. A series of events or inherent characteristics have caused them to miss the mark. And the consequences of that miss have been catastrophic.
Fall From Grace
We could understand the collapse of Kabul as a series of personal failings of White House senior leadership. We might place it in the context of Daedalus, Icarus and flying too close to the sun.
For those of you who are not familiar with the original version, Icarus and his father Daedalus are imprisoned on the island of Crete by a cruel, tyrannical King. Icarus’s father (in palace workshop management) crafts a winged contraption of feathers and wax to airlift them off the island as the King has barred them passage from surrounding seaports. Despite a stern warning, Icarus does not heed Daedalus’ instruction on flight execution, nor refer to his flight training manual. He flies too close to the sun, the heat from it melts the wax on his wings, and he falls into the sea, to his death.
Is Biden Icarus? Did he push the situation too far? That’s one way of understanding things. We all can’t otherwise help but ask what was he thinking? How did he let this happen?
Pictures in an Exhibition, or Real Life
Emmanuel Kant provides another wrinkle here. In his monumental philosophical work, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he posits that although we may attempt to observe the world through a lens of objectivity, as human beings, we are unable to detach ourselves from the framework of our individual life experiences. Our perception of events can be very different of what is truly happening because, as individuals, we are shaped by our unique knowledge while the world at large is shaped by a collective consciousness. Factoring into that our tendency to engage in emotional rather than rational thinking, it is inevitable that a true picture of reality presents a distorted image.
There in that infinite space, as Kant wrote, between what things really are (noumena, taken from the Greek philosophical term understanding/thought) and how we perceive them (phenomena) lies the answer why good people make wrong decisions. The target in the crosshairs can shift at whim depending on who we are and what we want to envision as our ultimate goal.
President Biden envisioned his triumph-over-Trump moment, having brought the troops home from Afghanistan by September 11th. The White House envisioned Afghan translators and aides to U.S. interests eating little packs of salted nuts on commercial jets while hashing over their miraculous escape between the in-flight movies. All parties wanted out of American’s longest war.
Navigating the Moral Mountains
That thin line between a calculated risk and a bad decision is a tightrope that stretches between two impossibly steep and treacherous mountains – one named success and the other failure. As human beings, we walk that thin line, teetering back and forth on our decisions, weighed down by the burden of our own self-interest on our backs. Although our original moral compass might have been set to the correct mountain range, it is easy to tire of moral responsibility when short term gratifications like honor or riches hover before our eyes like an oasis in the desert. Just under our radar, the needle moves, our moral weaknesses get the better of us and we end up heading in the wrong direction.
Hail to the Chief and to Hell with Reason
Although in this debacle President Biden does come off as callous and unrepentant, we have seen that he is a caring individual in other areas of his political career. How do we square these two realities?
In fact, the President was too busy blaming his predecessor for the rotten Afghanistan deal that he could have easily undone.
The New York Times reports that as recently as July, intelligence reports provided an increasingly pessimistic forecast that the government led by now-deposed President Hamid Karzai could withstand the Taliban.
How many times have we seen blindness to similar warnings in the corporate world that resulted in catastrophe?
An Illusion of Warmth for the Cold-Hearted
So where does that leave us?
Is our protagonist even searching his conscience finding fault with his actions? Not that we know. In his address to the nation on August 31, he called the evacuation an “extraordinary success” and took significant pains to place blame on the shoulders of his predecessors.
We can’t even let history judge because 1) our social media is already the defense attorney and the prosecutor fighting it out 2) according to Kant, we can only judge events in the context of their own unique time.
So, what can we, the plebeians, do to stop paying the price for their bad decisions?
The Buck Stops With No One, Leaving Room Only for Meager Change
The buck, Mr. President, does not stop with you. Those are just hollow words of empty repentance. But nor does it stop for anyone else. While fines against corporations for wrongdoing have exploded over the past decade, prosecutions against executives have not.
Corporations and institutions will continue to pay out huge fines that they can afford. Everyone moves on – except those who were let down after trusting people in power to make the right decisions.
Unless legislation is enacted for truly holding individuals accountable – measure for measure, like the Greeks believed the Cosmos meted out fortune and folly to each deserving individual – nothing will change.
If causing loss of life meant a life sentence, how quickly the mercurial winds would change direction! It would make anyone’s swollen head spin.
Close the Curtain or Take the Heat
As the chorus in many Greek plays cheerily sings: “History repeats itself ad nauseum.” Then, as now, audiences boo, jeer and tweet at the protagonists who just yesterday had been fine, upstanding individuals and today are banished from the kingdom.
And here in the audience, having taken the time to ponder fate and individual responsibility, will we change how we behave? Tragic drama has posed this question for centuries – “Pathei mathos” – we learn through suffering.
But clearly, we don’t.
What we do learn is that people can be experts at manipulating their moral compasses at any critical moment to serve their own interests.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of CCI Media or its editors.