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Michael Kelly
Non-Judgment Day at Yale

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_____Previous Columns_____
The Nine Days of Tom and Jack (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2001)
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Despite the Naysayers (The Washington Post, Nov 28, 2001)
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By Michael Kelly
Wednesday, December 19, 2001; Page A39

Not to be judgmental about it, but two cheers for Alison Hornstein.

Hornstein is a student at Yale University, and she has written a column for the Dec. 17 issue of Newsweek in which she attempts to come to terms with what for her and her friends at Yale is the most troublesome question arising out of Sept. 11: Did somebody do something really bad here?

This is not a question that most people have a hard time with, and that is Hornstein's point. She is surprised and bothered to find that, in the wake of the murders, many of her classmates had been unable even to address the question. Why? Because to address it would be to make a moral judgment, and to judge others is, for Hornstein's generation of properly educated young elites, the great taboo.

Hornstein writes that the initial response at Yale on Sept. 11 was one of horror: "But by Sept. 12, as our shock began to fade, so did our sense of being wronged. Student reactions expressed in the daily newspaper and in class pointed to the differences between our life circumstances and those of the perpetrators, suggesting that these differences had caused the previous day's events. Noticeably absent was a general outcry of indignation at what had been the most successful terrorist attack of our lifetimes. These reactions and similar ones on other campuses have made it apparent that my generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place."

Hornstein is clear as to why she and her peers find it so difficult to judge: They were trained all their lives to be this way. Hornstein spent 14 years in a public school in Manhattan "with students who came from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds" being tutored in an "open-minded curriculum." In second grade, she writes, she was taught that the Inuit of Alaska were "essentially like us," even though they ate caribou hoofs. In third grade, a teacher instructed the class in a parable of violence -- one boy kicking another -- the moral of which was that the kicker "had feelings that sometimes led him to do mean things." In high school, Hornstein and her fellow students agreed that although they personally found the practice of female genital mutilation to be abhorrent, they must accept it as part of the culture of other societies.

At some point soon after Sept. 11, listening to Yale students and professors offer rationalizations for the mass murders (poverty in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, etc.) Hornstein had an epiphany. Some things were just wrong. "Just as we should pass absolute moral judgment in the case of rape, we should recognize that some actions are objectively bad, despite differences in cultural standards and values. To me, hijacking planes and killing thousands of civilians falls into this category."

Hurrah! A breakthrough! A moral judgment! Yes, Ms. Hornstein, murdering thousands of people in fact is bad. But wait. A lifetime of instruction is not sloughed off quite so easily as all that; Hornstein's bold moral judgment is not quite so bold as all that. Look at her conclusion again: "To me," it begins. To me. Hijacking planes and killing thousands is not objectively bad after all. It is objectively bad only in Hornstein's opinion. Indeed, she rushes to reassure on this point: "Others may disagree." Others may disagree. And she adds: "It is less important to me where people choose to draw the line than it is that they are willing to draw it at all." Oh, dear.

It is astonishing, really. Here you have an obviously smart, obviously moral person trying nobly and painfully to think her way out of the intellectual and moral cul-de-sac in which the addled miseducation of her life has placed her -- and she cannot, in the end, bear to do it. She cannot judge.

Ms. Hornstein, push on. Go the last mile. Go out on the limb of judgment. Mass murder is indeed objectively bad -- and not just in your opinion. Others may disagree -- but they are wrong. Indeed, they are (shut the door for this part, lest the hall monitors catch us) morally wrong. Ms. Hornstein, it is not less important where people choose to draw the line as long as they will draw it somewhere; that puts you right back with your silly professors.

Draw the line, Ms. Hornstein. Draw it where you know it belongs. Dare to judge.

2001 The Washington Post Company