THIS COLUMN was supposed to be about cloning. I was grappling with the questions implied in the bizarre claims of the cloning cult when the news came from Tel Aviv.
Theoretical problems tied to biology, and the quasi-comic way in which they presented themselves last week, paled before images of blood in the street, faces twisted in anguish, stunned witnesses. Even as I watched television closely, looking for familiar faces, afraid to find them, I knew I was back on the edge of the hole in the world's heart. I found myself praying for my friends, who, as it happens, are Israelis and Palestinians both.
At times like this, the theoretical can seem a place to hide. Leon Kass, chair of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, bases an argument against cloning on what he calls ''the wisdom of repugnance'' - the horror human beings feel at certain things, even when reasons for that horror cannot be clearly articulated. But once we feel the horror, even if the dreaded outcome has not yet happened, the theoretical dissolves. Problems, even in prospect, become real.
That is what happened last week in biology. The revulsion prompted by cloning points to its problems - the very asexuality of this kind of reproduction; the prospect that cloned human beings will, by constitution, be physically or socially inferior to others; conversely, the possibility that the genetic manipulation of cloning science will bring about a superspecies, an absolutizing of the divide between haves and have-nots; the use of cloned persons, or cloned embryos, as means toward ends belonging to others.
Even assuming that the cloned human announced last week is a hoax, the old question is before us with new power: What is a human being? Species-altering prospects lie just ahead: the commingling of biology and computer science to create a ''trans-human''; the possibly indefinite extension of lifespan through use of cloned cells for rejuvenation; the ''enhancement'' of memory, intelligence, physique, and talent through genetic selection; even, say some scientists, the conquest of death itself.
But if limits are of the essence of human personhood (Isn't it in learning to cope with our limits, whether mortality or, say, emotional hypersensitivity, that we become who we are?), what sort of creature do we have when such heretofore basic limits begin to fall? What are human beings becoming?
And then Tel Aviv. On Sunday a pair of fanatics, apparently thinking to advance the cause of the Palestinians, accomplished one of the most gruesome acts of suicide murder ever. The timing of the two explosions was arranged to kill and maim in sequence so that, first, randomly chosen victims died unknowingly and then refuge seekers and rescuers died in full consciousness of the nightmare. The creative malevolence in this kind of calculation approaches the demonic.
There have by now been dozens of these horrors, and that they've become so nearly routine is itself an occasion of new horror - and a marker of the moral threshold to which suicide murders have dragged the human race.
In the very repugnance one feels at the news of such an event, the question presents itself even more sharply: What are human beings becoming? Not only that deluded individuals can chose to act in such nihilistic fashion but that they can be sponsored by political organizations that want to be taken seriously as instruments of justice and that they can then be regarded sympathetically by many who put the end of justice for Palestinians above evil means that discredit every Palestinian hope.
If human beings have any claim to moral identity, we must be capable of drawing lines, of saying here and no further. Otherwise we are like leaves in flowing water, drifting along toward whatever the future brings. The moral bankruptcy of suicide murder as a tactic for accomplishing a political goal is complete. That is the wisdom adhering in the revulsion we feel. That many Palestinians have embraced this tactic, or view it as appropriate, and that many in the Arab world and many among European and American supporters of the out-gunned Palestinians accept the tactic as ''necessary'' or ''understandable'' is a disaster. Obviously so for slaughtered Israelis, but equally so for Palestinians. Suicide murder is Palestinian suicide. More broadly, if suicide murder is legitimized as a language of grievance, then the ''posthuman'' future is here.
Politics and biology alike invite us to reflect upon our most basic values. Humanness is always in a state of becoming, and even though we are inclined to focus on our ultimate purposes as determining who we are (justice in one order; healthy offspring, say, in another), it is in fact our methods that define us. What is a human being? A creature who takes seriously the way ends already exist in means. If we lose that, no matter how ''enhanced'' or how ''liberated,'' we lose everything.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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