JFK on the Topic of Neutrality
January 13, 2009
I ran across a quote from John F. Kennedy, former President of the United States. In interpreting Dante’s Inferno, John F. Kennedy is said to have stated: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”
The neutrality angle apparently is taken from the following language in the Inferno:
Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I [Dante] set out, I wept.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voice shrill and faints, and beating hands –
All went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.
And I – my head oppressed by horror – said:
“Master [Virgil], what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”
And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them –
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”
And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.
Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.
The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”
And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on – so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.
Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people – I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.
After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.
At once I understood with certaintly:
this company contrained the cowardly,
hateful to God and to His enemies.
These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.
The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.
I wonder what JFK would think about the current typical American discourse on abortion (assuming his use of the Dante line wasn’t just pretty language reserved for useful instances). For instance, “I oppose abortion, but I believe that ultimately the government should leave that decision to a woman and her conscience” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that whether you are looking at [the issue of what point a baby get human rights] from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade” (Obama). On that issue at least, neutrality seems to be a pretty popular position, even if it is an incoherent one.