As babies were being pulled, crushed and broken, from the rubble.
As people lay writhing on cardboard mats, gashed and moaning under the sun.
As families placed their loved ones out at the curb for pick-up, like garbage.
As Haiti reeled and staggered and the rest of the world rushed to the aid of a humble, beleaguered people, two icons of American conservatism reared up last week and offered analyses of the earthquake that has devastated the impoverished island nation.
The Rev. Pat Robertson opined on his program, The 700 Club, that Haiti's woes stem from the fact that it made a deal with the devil two centuries ago and now is "cursed." Rush Limbaugh suggested the relief effort would "play right into" President Obama's hands, allowing him to appear "humanitarian, compassionate" and thus, "burnish" his standing within the African-American community.
It left me wondering, just for the briefest of seconds, whether conservatism has a conscience, whether conservatism has a soul.
Yes, you're right. It is a fundamentally unfair question, if only because conservatives such as columnist Kathleen Parker and TV personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck of The View promptly took the men to task.
And yet, by the same token: This is hardly the first time this has happened. To the contrary, it has become routine that after disasters both natural and human, icons of conservatism spout hateful, hurtful, cynical words, words that belittle the victims and trivialize the suffering.
As in Neal Boortz blaming the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina on the "worthless parasites" who lived in New Orleans.
As in Michael Savage reportedly saying the United States should not send "one nickel" of aid to South Asia when a tsunami killed 226,000 people because it is "a hotbed of radical Islam."
As in Jerry Falwell blaming the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that took 3,000 lives on gays, feminism, abortion and the ACLU.
And if it is unfair to question conservatism's possession of conscience and soul, perhaps one can be forgiven for simply wondering what is this weird reflex, this bizarre tic, that seems to repeatedly compel its most high-profile adherents to victimize victims. Social conservatives -- we know this, because they tell us repeatedly -- are righteous people, people gifted with a higher morality than the ordinary run of human beings.
But one sees little of that great-heartedness in the aftermath of tragedy. Great-heartedness, after all, would include compassion for people suffering and bereft — and preclude ad hominem assaults on the vulnerable and helpless.
Apparently, some of us are so estranged from their very humanity, so besotted with their own righteousness, so deeply, damnably smug, self-centered, small and mean, that there is nothing — not the wail of orphan children, not the stink of rotting flesh, not death tolls that stagger imagining — they will not reduce to cheap morality plays to further their cultural and political agendas. Tens of thousands of people are dead in the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere and the preacher asks: How can that be used to buttress my vision of a vengeful, angry God? Relief is being rushed to the island as fast as humanly possible and the bloviator wonders: How can that be used to belittle Barack Obama?
Apparently, there's never a time out, never a pause button, never a moment when they remember to simply behave like human beings. A human being, faced with calamity on this scale, says, Oh, my God. A human being says, Those poor people. A human being says, What can I do to help?
But the Limbaughs and Robertsons of the world say some variation of, God hates you. Or, You had it coming. They call that conservative.
I call it obscene.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at email@example.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.