*The New Republic* Weighs-In on American Missionary John Allen Chau


ChauYesterday I posted Kate Carte’s twitter thread on the connections between the missionary killed by an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island and the American celebration of Thanksgiving.  Read the post here.

Over at The New Republic, Ryu Spaeth provides some ethical nuance.  Here is a taste of his piece, “The Strange Ethics of Killing John Allen Chau“:

It is basically a miracle that the Sentinelese, numbering as few as a few dozen people, continue to exist. Other indigenous tribes were wiped out when the British turned the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a penal colony in the nineteenth century. Still others withered when they came into a more benign contact with anthropologists in the twentieth. It is no wonder the Sentinelese are wary of foreigners. For them to have successfully turned back yet another encroachment by the West, even in the figure of an irrepressible fool, seems like a rare victory amidst so much defeat. It feels like well-earned revenge.

But this is where the story’s underlying moral logic becomes almost too beguiling. Perhaps we want it to be that simple, for a man’s life to cost exactly that of a trespass of sacrosanct ground. Just as the Sentinelese appear to modern eyes to stand outside of time, with their rough-hewn weapons and ocean-bound lives, so does their rough administration of justice, suggesting some iron decree that is immemorial, nearing the divine: Cross this line and you will be struck down.

In much of the world, the rules that govern borders and sovereignty, that determine who can go where, are not so brightly defined. They are tacked together from a host of precedents and compromises, and riven with ambiguities and ethical pitfalls. Some people can cross, others cannot, and the difference is sometimes literally arbitrary, determined by lottery. There is nothing close to a consensus on what these rules should ultimately be, with the options ranging from walls to the abolition of borders altogether. At the root of this issue are fundamental questions about what it means to be a culture, a nation, a people. It is arguably the most divisive problem of our time, and easily one of the most explosive.

Just last week, as news was spreading of Chau’s death, no less a liberal eminence than Hillary Clinton declared that Europe “must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’” to migrants. Clinton said this position was necessary because a flood of migrants to Europe, starting in 2015, had played into the hands of right-wing anti-immigration parties, feeding their popularity. The latter part of that statement is undoubtedly true, but critics pointed out that that is no reason to deny refuge entirely to those fleeing appalling conditions in their home countries.

There is no equivalence between Clinton’s callous remarks and the hostility of the Sentinelese—for one thing, the dynamics at play between the powerful and the vulnerable in these two situations are reversed. But the comparison reminds us that the world we live in is necessarily imperfect and often unjust, because its laws are the product of competing claims made in pluralistic societies. The fascination with Chau’s killing is multifaceted, but perhaps it is at least partly driven by the impossible fantasy of a world where solutions arrive with the directness of an arrow’s flight—and where justice and the law are one and the same.

Read the entire piece here.