Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ethical-type substances

Now that the big news has broken in the college football world that the good Senator Tressel may not be as lily-white as his books proclaim (First page in the Manual: Cheaters win. For a while.), I thought I'd revisit the topic of ethics that I brushed past a few weeks ago on the new national holiday now known as Osama Got His day. (Just for the record, I never believed Tressel was as spotless as his true believers like to think. After all, I knew his name from Youngstown State.)

What exactly are the ethics of an assassination? Under the traditional rules of war, anything goes with regard to figures of strategic importance. In World War II, often referenced by half-assed liberals as "the last good war" (I won't even get into the concept of 'good war' here), the US had broken the Japanese codes and knew which plane Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was going to be flying in and promptly ambushed it and shot it down; an assassination as sure as one from a single bullet but a wartime act against a soldier and, thus, more easily placed within the realm of 'ethical' combat.

Killing Osama bin Laden, in the midst of our perpetual war (cue Orwell) against an enemy that can come from anywhere and can be identified as anyone; whose status in life can change from "citizen" to "terrorist" to "combatant" to "enemy non-combatant" (my favorite) with the stroke of a key, ended up being just one more example of the plasticity of the ethical code that the US has long touted as what sets it apart from much of the rest of the world.

Big surprise, right? I mean, we're all cynics here. It just amuses me in the same way that watching people fervently believe in US presidential candidates does. After all, think about the killing of this man the next time that people are outraged when a US or allied VIP is killed in a random bombing. It's a horrible crime against humanity! But killing this unarmed guy is somehow 'justice'. On the contrary, a targeted assassination is just what it sounds like (and, incidentally, illegal under US law and multiple international treaties which the US is a signatory to, not least of them the Geneva Conventions), whether you use a SEAL team or and a gun or a block of plastique and a Honda. The phrase "don't stoop to their level" comes to mind.

"Oh, but it's not even the same!", you say. "After all, we just shot one guy who deserved it. They kill innocents with their bombs." In military parlance, innocents are often termed "collateral damage". I won't bore you with the endless stories about collateral damage that currently has the president (read: stooge) of Afghanistan making vague threats against the US as a consequence. Go find them.

Terrorists are often the neighbors of the collateral damage and it's said activity that frequently propels them into that life. Of course, there are still ethical questions even within the framework of terrorism. When the Baader-Meinhof/Red Faction group were active in Germany in the 70s, they committed a number of bombings; at least two that injured the very workers that they claimed to represent. There was, of course, outrage within the organization for having harmed the very people they were fighting for, even though the most notable occurrence was an attempt to assassinate the editor of a prominent German newspaper.

If the RAF or al-Qaeda had the ability to only kill their targets with their bombing attacks, one would think they would exercise said ability (which, incidentally, is not completely beyond the reach of many groups, since Hezbollah has proven to be very adept at this over the years.) After all, why kill or maim the very people you're trying to recruit/protect/serve/inspire? A reasonable person has to assume that some degree of ethical assessment goes into acts like this in the same way that the US government calculates what laws it's willing to break or principles it's willing to abandon to serve its masters' interests.

Of course, it's easier to simply assume that bin Laden and all of his associates are simply inhuman monsters because it's easier to fight and kill people when you dehumanize them. That's been a standard approach of warfare from time out of mind. So, did the inhuman monster deserve to die? Most people would insist that he did because of his supposed role as the planner of the World Trade Center attacks. After all, even though he was only indirectly responsible, the perspective of Nuremberg, that the planners are every bit as culpable as the doers, is still a popular and easily argued stance. It's only mildly hilarious to the historically obsessed among us that the very Conventions that the US has been serially violating for the past half century were written in response to the very acts that took place in the time period of the Good War and to which Nuremberg was the initial response. Irony is fun!

Again, did he deserve to die? I don't know. Does Larry Summers deserve to die for inflicting his economic ideology on the Baltic republics and Russia and indirectly (i.e. like bin Laden) causing what may be thousands of suicides and untold misery? (pleasesayyespleasesayyespleasesayyes) Where do personal ethics, national ethics, and the concept of justice meet? Do they meet? Does national interest trumps ethics or can it be one and the same, in the long-term? "Let every action aim solely for the common good..." Or is it simply impossible to be genuinely ethical in a "wartime" situation?

Let's back up a bit: When the Bill of Rights was first discussed and promoted by George Mason and later Madison and Jefferson, one of the key points that they referenced was "freedom from occupying armies", which became the third amendment that freed civilians from being forced to quarter troops in their homes. Part of that was motivated by people being tossed from their homes by the British in Boston during the revolution. But part of it was motivated by there being a distinction between wartime and peacetime. Most of the writers of the Constitution were very concerned about the concept of a standing army, as it not only represented a drain on resources, but also a government that always had the use of force within easy access. This concern (and confusion) was later eloquently expressed by Einstein, when he said: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."

However, since the end of World War 2, the US has been on a wartime footing and wartime economy, with the "war on terror" only the latest manifestation of the national policy that someone is always out to get us so we'd better be ready to shoot back (cue MacArthur). Does that mean wartime ethics are perpetual, as well? And what defines them? We've already seen the willingness of the US to evade the accepted 'rules' of war., but there's a more pervasive aspect than simply outrageous acts of violence. It's yet another example of the militarization of US society that has created an outlook where nothing can be sufficiently 'solved' without the use of guns; most often in the interest of economic influence or control in other nations (at home, of course, we just use old-fashioned bribery.)

If one decides that we are permanently at war, then any ethical constraints on behavior become that much weaker (after all, "things happen" in war) and the concept of a civilized society becomes that much more distant. If one decides that the previously acknowledged 'rules' of war are no longer applicable because this war is different, it just gets that much worse. So, where do ethics and, for that matter, civility actually come into play, not just in the bin Laden assassination, but US foreign policy in general?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Words, perhaps to live by

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. - Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.

The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and, very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution... The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. - Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, 1931.

He that hath not one and the self-same general end always as long as he liveth, cannot possibly be one and the self-same man always. But this will not suffice except thou add also what ought to be this general end. For as the general conceit and apprehension of all those things which upon no certain ground are by the greater part of men deemed good, cannot be uniform and agreeable, but that only which is limited and restrained by some certain proprieties and conditions, as of community: that nothing be conceived good, which is not commonly and publicly good: so must the end also that we propose unto ourselves, be common and sociable. For he that doth direct all his own private motionsand purposes to that end, all his actions will be agreeable and uniform; and by that means will be still the same man.- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XI, xix.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. - Frederick Douglass, speech on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation, January 1887.

Thankfully, perseverance is a good substitute for talent. - Steve Martin.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Look! Over there! Someone's been shot!

On Monday, the latest government-targeted assassination took place. It will doubtlessly remain the lead story on every media outlet available, including the so-called "progressive" ones, for some time, as the old aphorism "if it bleeds, it leads" has never been more true than it is today. When it's most exciting is when the corpse is someone that a healthy chunk of the American public had a reason to hate; not necessarily a good reason, but a reason. Osama bin Laden is one of those corpses. Almost a decade ago, he was the reputed mastermind behind the deaths of some 3000 people in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a field somewhere in Pennsylvania. Since then, he's been hiding from the omnipresent reach of US foreign policy and military power and been a shining example of the bogeyman that MacArthur railed against so many years ago:
Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it.

Many things have changed in the space of the past decade, but many other things have remained the same. Among the latter are this: the truly rich still remains a small percentage of the US (and world) population but still own the majority of the wealth and property of the US (and the world.) Until that particular problem is addressed, it doesn't really matter how many so-called terrorist leaders are gunned down, alleged or actual, in a firefight or cowering in a corner, dark skinned or fair skinned, religious or secular. None of them will matter and neither did Osama bin Laden. But the media will encourage you and everyone else to think of nothing else for as long as it takes them to get to the next distraction, be it a wedding of some archaic European noble house or another Hollywood scandal. None of that matters, but it will all claim center stage while you go on being robbed.

How many Bank of America executives were brought up on fraud charges by the bullet that killed Osama bin Laden?
How many teachers' jobs were saved by that bullet?
How many new people were given health care?
How many new jobs or opportunities were created (other than new leader of al-Qaeda)?

None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. And yet people were willing to pour out into the streets to celebrate not the jailing of someone like Lloyd Blankfein, but the killing of a nearly irrelevant terrorist group leader whose last notable action took place before much of the current generation of Americans even knew what the World Trade Center was and have no idea whom Osama bin Laden is (or was) now. I mean, seriously, didn't the Penn State women's volleyball team just win a championship or something? The kids there don't have a better reason to get out in the streets and party other than hearing about the killing of some wacko who lives 3 doors down from a Pakistani strip mall?

We have genuine problems. Societal problems. Structural problems. Our problems are connected to this man only in that he is a symptom of them; an outgrowth. Not a cause. Representing his death as some kind of accomplishment in the current state of affairs is akin to treating pneumonia with Purple Drank. Osama bin Laden is the pristine example of the phenomenon known as "blowback" to US foreign policy. He's a result, not a source of origin. The fact that his plans led to the murder of so many people and his murder is now a cause for celebration by many of the fellow citizens of those people is one of those little historical hypocrisies that I'll leave alone (if only because it makes me gag to think about the herd impulse so prevalent in our society. Nation of sheep...)

So, go on. Keep reading and watching and listening. Someone, after all, has been shot. Your tax dollars paid for the bullets and the helicopters and the training of Team Six and the two wars created as a response to that person's actions. That means he must have been important... right?