Wrongs That Are Right

A recent blog I posted elicited a most interesting comment from my blogging buddy “BTG” (“Big Tall Guy”). I argued for the objectivity of moral judgments, when well-reasoned, and he raised the following issues:

Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

I made a brief, but altogether unsatisfactory response — as one does with comments on a blog post — and then realized that the issues BTG raised deserve extended response. So here goes. Let’s begin with one of his examples. Let’s take the case of Mrs Jones who has been repeatedly battered by her husband, several times seriously enough to require trips to the hospital. After a series of such events, including one beating in a hotel elevator that was caught on CCTV and  “went viral” arousing the ire of millions of people around the globe, she reaches out during one such beating, grabs a bronze statue on the bedside table and kills her husband. Assuming that the case ever goes to trial, there is little doubt that a jury would consider this a case of “justifiable homicide.” It is wrong to kill, but under the circumstances one would almost assuredly regard the killing as “the right thing to do” — or if we hesitate to use the word “right,” at least we must admit it was expedient and therefore justified in the circumstances. That’s my point: killing is wrong, but in this case, within the context of this event, it is justified because there is a reasonable case to be made that if Mrs. Jones had not killed her husband he would eventually have killed her. It was self-defense.

My point is that we can reason about such events. We need not just rely on “gut feelings” or “intuition.” It’s not just a question of personal opinion. We can try to distance ourselves from the event and examine it as objectively as possible, separate out its grisly elements and render a  judgment. It’s what would be done in a court of law, and it is what we can do on a daily basis if we choose to venture beyond the realm of grunts and hunches. Ethics need not be reduced to the level of personal feelings, simply.

But there are cases which are even more troublesome. Take the case of Henry Smith who has joined the U.S. Army and is now in Afghanistan where he is called upon to kill people regarded by his country as enemies. He has no bone to pick with these people, and in the case of the war in Afghanistan it is not clear that the folks who fall before his automatic weapon are in fact enemies in any real sense of that term. And even less clear is the case of the airman who sits in a room somewhere in Nebraska and directs drones half-way around the world to “take out” presumed enemies of Freedom.

St. Augustine argued that the only justification for killing in war is in the case of defense of home and hearth, a defensive war. It’s not clear that the so-called terrorists Smith is killing pose any direct threat to Smith or his home and hearth. In other words, it is not clear that this is a “just war,” in Augustine’s sense of that term. He is simply ordered to kill and in many cases because of his situation, the men he kills are trying to kill him. Unless he is guiding a drone, his act is one of self-defense. But this act is complicated by the fact that Smith might well have chosen to take a job at Walmart rather than to enlist in a war that might be over nothing more vital than the country’s supply of oil — or poppies. He made a choice, presumably. It’s not as clear-cut as the former case — though we might revisit the former case and ask why Mrs. Jones didn’t simply leave her husband before putting herself in a position to have to kill him rather than be killed herself.

The point of this extended discussion is that we can pick out the various elements of each and every situation and examine them in the air of dispassionate scrutiny and render a judgment that stands up to criticism. To the extent that it can withstand criticism we can claim it is true — so far as we can tell at present: we have no absolute knowledge. We can say that Mrs Jones, for example, was trying to work through the domestic violence because deep down she loved her husband and leaving him was never a real option — she genuinely believed that things would work themselves out. But Smith is more culpable, despite the fact that our country keeps telling us that these young men and women are heroes, they have all made a decision to engage in a war that is of doubtful legitimacy: it is not clear just how those “enemies” in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to Henry Smith or anyone else in the U.S. of A. If he had been drafted the situation would be entirely different, but as it is his killing raises a number of problems regarding the rightness of his actions.

But in the end, the point I want to make is that we can discuss it: we can draw out the particulars and try to determine whether his action is right or wrong. I would simply note, again, it cannot be both. It’s either right or it is wrong. The problem we have, if we decide to think about such things rather than dismiss them with a grunt, is deciding which it is.

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Defending The Eggheads

In 1952 the right-wing novelist and essayist Louis Bromfield wrote the following barb regarding the intellectual, who was increasingly referred to as an “egghead.”

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protegé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in a mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism. A doctrinaire supporter of Middle-European socialism as opposed to Greco-French-American ideas of democracy and liberalism. Subject to the old-fashioned philosophical morality of Nietzsche which frequently leads him into jail or disgrace. A self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

To add to the mix, president Eisenhower later added “by the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” And so, led by the likes of Joe McCarthy, the war against those who use their minds and choose their words carefully began. And despite McCarthy’s dwindling popularity, the cry was swiftly taken up by hordes of more practical and down-to-earth folks who have always had a distrust of poets, artists, dreamers, and those reputed to live in ivory towers.

But we might note that Eisenhower’s definition might well include Bromfield who uses way too many words and doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.   After all, it’s not at all clear how those dry intellectuals can at the same time be “over-emotional and feminine” (whatever that might mean). Further, socialism cannot easily be set in opposition to democracy since they are not of a kind: one is an economic system and the other a political one. There are highly successful countries that blend in interesting ways both socialism and democracy. Moreover, Bromfield might even fit his own description of an egghead, since he is “supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men.” But, we leave these enticing thoughts because there are larger issues here.

To begin with, Bromfield does make a couple of good points. For one, intellectuals do tend to look at every side of complex issues and it often renders them ineffectual. Accurate or not, the common image of the intellectual is the philosopher Thales who reportedly fell into a hole while gazing at the stars! However, we might recall that Plato’s notion that philosophers should be kings was dismissed out of hand by that other egghead, Aristotle, who preferred a person of “practical wisdom,” which meant a person with good common sense. Neither, however, would have approved of a political leader who rushes blindly into action before he or she has fully accessed the consequences of that action — like, say, engaging in war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus, if the alternative to the egghead is the “real world” person of a practical mien who jumps at conclusions and rushes headlong into disaster, then one would think the intellectual approach is to be preferred. Or, perhaps, there is a third option: careful deliberation followed by determination to follow the agreed-upon course of action. Indeed, this is the sort of thing James Madison envisioned when he wrote the Constitution. (Now, there’s an egghead if there ever was one!!) This was supposed to be the strength of a Democracy. We were to be a nation that took its time to do things right, examining both sides of complex issues and reaching a consensus when possible.  We were supposed to deliberate and use our minds; in order to make sure we could do that, an educated citizenry was the keystone. Both Madison and his close friend (and another egghead) Thomas Jefferson agreed about that.

But the anti-intellectual ethos that permeates this culture today has lent its considerable weight to the attack on the public schools and the notion that education will lead this country into a brighter tomorrow has been lost in the concern over more practical matters: like job training and the economy. To be sure, Bromfield is right that intellectuals can be a pain in the ass. But one would hope that in this complex world of ours we would willingly take time to listen to a person who knows what he or she is talking about rather than mindlessly follow the person who shoots off his mouth and rushes blindly into situations filled with hidden dangers.

Plea Bargain

You may remember the dreadful story of Staff Sergent Robert Bales who left his camp in Afghanistan some months ago and went on a shooting rampage, killing 16 Afghan people, mostly women and children. At the time the Army pledged to have the man executed for his atrocities, a promise that was a diplomatic necessity, given the tenuous position of the American soldiers in that country. It was a promise that the Army now says it may not keep. As a recent Yahoo News story tells us:

The outcome of the case carries high stakes. The Army had been trying to have Bales executed, and Afghan villagers have demanded it.

In Afghanistan Thursday, a family member of a victim reacted angrily to the news that Bales might escape the death penalty.

“This is a shameful act by the Americans. They promised us the death penalty, and now they are going back on their word,” said Baraan Noorzia, whose brother was killed in the massacre.

Other relatives expressed even greater outrage at the possibility, during interviews with The Associated Press last month in Kandahar.

“For this one thing, we would kill 100 American soldiers,” vowed Mohammed Wazir, who had 11 family members killed that night, including his mother and 2-year-old daughter.

This is a very difficult situation the Army, and by extension this country, has gotten itself into. They now say that if Bales will give the details of his night of madness they will take the death penalty off the table. The alternative is life imprisonment with no chance of parole. But this will not satisfy the families of those killed that night, clearly, as we can tell from the remarks of Noorzia and Wazir. Other family members have threatened reprisals as well; the Army is facing a very volatile situation in a country where they do not belong and where they had no business being in the first place.

In fact, this issue has so many layers of difficulty one hardly knows where to begin to peel them off. For one thing, his lawyer contends that Bales, who was on his fourth combat deployment in a row, was suffering from post-traumatic brain syndrome and possible brain injury. In a word, his lawyer contends that the man didn’t know what he was doing even as he did it. He was high on liquor, Valium, and steroids, which he was taking to enable him to carry on in an impossible situation. This gives us compelling reasons to have mercy on the man and blame the Army rather than the man who pulled the trigger that night. This is the tack his lawyer has been taking (and good luck with that). But, on the other hand, Bales is apparently aware of what he did and can recount the details of that night and has promised to do so in order to save his own life. If he knew what he was doing then he is responsible and must suffer the consequences. And those consequences, to appease the families of those he killed, must involve execution — especially in light of the Army’s initial promise to those families. That’s the only “solution” they will accept, and whether we allow that revenge is a compelling ethical reason for action, it is certainly understandable in the circumstances. That is, we can understand why the families of the survivors of that terrible might would want to avenge the deaths of their loved ones even if we don’t accept it as a compelling ethical reason for action. That’s the bind I find myself in. I don’t approve of capital punishment under any circumstances, but in this case, given its promise, I don’t see how the Army can avoid that option if they want to see an end to the turmoil they have stirred up by placing this man in that situation. Political expediency would appear to trump ethics in this case: the only acceptable “solution” is to sacrifice this man to the cause — a cause which is by no means worth the price.

Or the Army will break its promise to the Afghan families and risk reprisals and the further deterioration of this country’s reputation in the Middle East. It’s a dilemma.

Big Mistake

A recent Yahoo News story underscores the stupidity of undertaking a military operation in Afghanistan:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Militants killed six Americans, including a young female diplomat, and an Afghan doctor Saturday in a pair of attacks in Afghanistan on Saturday. It was the deadliest day for the United States in the war in eight months.

The violence — hours after the U.S. military’s top officer arrived for consultations with Afghan and U.S.-led coalition officials — illustrates the instability plaguing the nation as foreign forces work to pull nearly all their combat troops out of the country by the end of 2014.

The current plan is to withdraw the vast majority of the 66,000 U.S. troops leaving a few thousand to train Afghan troops who are then supposed to restrain the insurgents. So far the plan doesn’t seem to be working very well as this latest incident attests. The female diplomat mentioned above was on her way to a school to deliver some books the teachers needed for their classes. As this incident suggests, our entire involvement in Afghanistan has been one bloody mistake after another.

Our initial involvement in Afghanistan was part of George W Bush’s plan to democratize that part of the world and, of course, to gain control of the oil fields in Iraq. When Barack Obama won the presidency for the first time George McGovern, who had a PhD in history from Northwestern, warned Obama not to get further involved in that country. It is a hornet’s nest and has been for centuries. It brought the Soviet Union to its knees and many think it was largely responsible for issuing the death-blow to what was left of the British Empire. The country has a history of internecine unrest and tribal hatred and the latest chapter, written by the Taliban, is simply one of many that can be read over the graves of thousands of dead.

McGovern knew whereof he spoke and Obama made a huge mistake to ignore him and ratchet up the war in an effort to bring stability to such a volatile country.  We learn that every day to our chagrin. Obama seems to take the advice of his military advisers far too seriously. We should never have gotten ourselves  involved in the first place and every American death can be chalked up to the stupidity of those who think there can be military victories any more and that they can determine the way the rest of the world lives.

This may strike the careful reader as inconsistent thinking on my part. After all, I am the champion of ethical judgment across cultural boundaries. I have insisted in a number of past blogs that it is our responsibility as moral agents to be aware of what is going on around us and to refuse to stop thinking at national borders when we become aware that wrong is being done. And clearly a great deal of wrong is being done in Afghanistan where women, for example, are treated like chattel and people have little or no self-determination. But it is one thing to judge this to be wrong and quite another to send in troops that will simply exacerbate an already volatile situation. It is one thing to judge an action to be wrong and it is quite another to act to bring about change in a situation that history has taught us simply doesn’t want things to be any different from they have been for as long as anyone can remember. Indeed, it is one thing to think and quite another to act: thinking should always take place; action is frequently ill-advised as careful thought will attest.

Disobedient Soldier

America has a proud tradition of civil disobedience. From Henry David Thoreau who went to jail rather than pay a tax to support slavery to Martin Luther King Jr. who went to jail in protest over laws in Alabama that he was convinced were discriminatory. The  latest in that line appears to be a young Army private named Bradley Manning who is facing a court-martial for leaking confidential and classified material. As Manning sees it, he was simply trying to alert the American public to the atrocities their armies were committing in Iraq and Afghanistan where he perceived a “bloodlust,” what he called a “total disregard for human life.”
As we are told by HuffPost, in a 35 page document he read prior to his court-martial he said he was disturbed by the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the way American troops treated the populace; he did not believe the release of the information he downloaded onto a thumb drive would harm the U.S.

Bradley Manning (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Bradley Manning
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Manning went on to say, “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”  In a word, he saw his act as an act of patriotism that would draw attention to a situation he thought his fellow Americans would abhor. In his statement, for example, he claims he saw films of American soldiers who killed 11 men, including a Reuters photographer, and they seemed to be exhibiting the same sort of delight as a group of young boys “torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”

The key to civil disobedience, as King noted, is to draw attention to an unjust law while at the same time showing a willingness on the part of the disobedient to respect laws in general. As King said in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,”

“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . . One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all'”

The difference between Manning’s case and that of King or even Thoreau is that Manning did not disobey a civil law; he is a member of our armed forces and it will be argued that as a private in the Army he has an obligation to follow orders and not put the nation at risk by leaking thousands of classified documents. One could counter that the war in Iraq (as St. Augustine would argue) was an unjust war and that Manning is on solid moral grounds. Still, he is in the military and it is doubtful that Manning will escape the harsh judgment of a military court that will have what it regards as the nation’s best interest in mind — and future military discipline as well. They will want to make an example of this man, it seems, and he is facing the very real prospect of life in prison.

But the parallels with Thoreau and King are striking and one does wish the young man could be tried in a civil court by a jury of his peers. In the end, though, the moral high ground that Martin Luther King always sought no longer seems to be a concern in this “war on terror” that really isn’t a war at all but is a nightmare in which we seem to be lowering ourselves to the level of the very people we are protecting ourselves against.

Hooray For Canada!

Ya gotta love it! The border guards between Canada and Michigan refused admission into Canada of pastor Terry Jones and his fellow passengers. The story begins with a couple of tasty paragraphs:

Stephanie Sapp said fellow pastor and her husband Wayne Sapp, along with Jones, were turned back at the Michigan-Ontario border after being detained for several hours. Jones, who leads Florida’s tiny Dove World Outreach Center, and Wayne Sapp, were scheduled to attend Freedom Showdown, an inter-faith debate Thursday evening outside the Ontario Legislature.

Stephanie Sapp said Jones was denied entry because of a fine he got in Germany almost 20 years ago for using the title “doctor” there (he had received an honorary doctorate in theology from a Californian university in 1993). Also, both men had been charged with breaching the peace at a planned rally in Detroit last year.

I’ll overlook the fascinating question of why the man wanted to be addressed as “doctor” after holding an honorary doctoral degree from “a California university.” (But I do wonder what on earth they were thinking??) The Germans had it right: they should have fined him for impersonating a respectable person. And I would defend anyone’s right to “breach the peace” in the name of conscience. But bear in mind that this is the man of God who ordered the burning of the Quran not long ago precipitating a riot in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. He is apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But I love to think the Canadians have it right to refuse admission of this man into their country. I’m all for freedom of speech (which he claims he is being denied), but there are certain people who simply shouldn’t be allowed to open their mouths in public. Defending a person’s right to spread hatred is pushing the first amendment to its limits. Hate speech is designed to drive people apart and start riots; that sort of thing coming from a professed man of the cloth is doubly reprehensible. However, we cannot pick and choose what a person is allowed to say, though (speaking for myself) there are times when I would like to!!

In this regard, one can sympathize with those in the Middle East who wondered why this country doesn’t refuse to allow films such as “The Innocence of Muslims” that promote racial hatred and which has recently led al-Qaida to declare a “holy war” against the United States and Israel. One can understand, if not sympathize with, those who were outraged at the insults heaped on the founder of Islam. Our notion that free speech is a basic human right is not one that is shared by every other culture. But our defense of free speech is vital to what this country means and we were right to allow the film to be shown in spite of the fact that it stirred up hatred and violence in the Middle East.

We must protect any person’s right to say anything as long as it doesn’t directly result in harm to another person. Determining just what this might be before the person speaks or writes is a problem. One must try to determine the person’s intent, which is not always clear. And the intention of the film-maker in this case was to increase sympathy for the Christians living in Egypt, not to spread hatred — or so he says. Whenever speech is prohibited there is always the danger of censorship which, like any form of repression, is anathema to a free country. Thus, while I may applaud the Canadians for doing what I would love to do myself — namely, refuse to allow Terry Jones entry into the United States — I must admit that he has a right to his opinions no matter how hateful and stupid they might be. It’s the price we pay I suppose.

Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”

Bold Move

In a recent interview Barack Obama came out openly in defense of same-sex marriage. From one point of view this is a no-brainer because there can be no moral reason why two people should not get married when they love one another. In addition, from a political perspective there is every reason why the marriage should be recognized, since failure to do so denies the parties the rights of citizenship that other married couples enjoy. Those who are in a tizzy about the destruction of the “sanctity” of marriage are sublimating a homophobia they are reluctant to confront. Heaven knows the world can use more love and less hate. None the less, while Obama knows how to play the political game he also knows that an election is looming on the horizon. Thus, for him to take a stand on an issue such as this is indeed a bold move. Following the interview, he sent around an email explaining his views:

What I’ve come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.

So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.

For a man who has been reluctant to take a positive stand on any issue for fear of offending someone, who has been far too conciliatory during his first years as President, this move raises some interesting questions. The man is a masterful politician, if nothing else. Though he was careful to point out that this is a states’ rights issue, one must wonder why he has chosen to be forthcoming on gay marriage at this time, a few months before a major election. The issue is sure to polarize voters and it could well cost him votes. But it could also bring back many of the younger voters he has assuredly lost as a result of his disappointing failure to deliver on promises to close down Guantanamo and bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Eventually, of course, the troops did come home from Iraq, but many of them were reassigned to an expanded war in Afghanistan and the trade-off was a disappointment to many.)  In addition, there has been little in the way of an economic recovery and there are still a great many people out of work. Finally, Obama has been far too friendly with the corporations and weak on the environment to please many of the bright-eyed hopefuls who saw his presidency as a sure sign of better things to come. He has to do something to bring back many of those voters. I suspect this declaration is a calculated risk.

More power to him. Regardless of his motivations, and they are clearly political, it is refreshing to see the man take a stand on a highly controversial issue, indeed, a moral issue, and declare himself boldly in favor of gay marriage. And this in a political climate where successful politicians are masters of the artful dodge, the old soft-shoe. I would love to think it is a sign of things to come and that a second term would see him take more stands on moral high ground when he no longer has to worry about his reelection. This is certainly what people expected from him in the first place.

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.

Offensive Defense

Can you believe it? The story begins, SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The civilian attorney representing the U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan villagers wants to replace the military lawyer assigned to the case after disagreements over how to handle his defense.

“You are fired, sorry, but we have much more experience than you,” Seattle-based John Henry Browne, the outspoken lawyer who has been the public face of the defense of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, said in an email to military lawyer Major Thomas Hurley.

One recalls Shakespeare’s pithy comment in Henry VI, Part II where Dick says “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That seems about right. The man accused of killing 17 Afghan citizens in a blind fury and who might well have been suffering from brain damage and battle fatigue after seven tours of duty in two different war zones is now depending on warring lawyers to save his own life. How ironic. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. One of the lawyers was appointed by the military, the other selected by Bales himself; each has his own ideas about how to conduct the defense.

You have to love the way the firing of Major Hurley (which must be approved by Bales and the military before it becomes a reality) is accomplished by a terse, grammatically incorrect, self-promoting email message. And while the lawyers fight among themselves about the best way to save this man’s life, the accused is about to undergo a psychological examination to determine whether or not he knew what he was doing when he went out, twice, and allegedly shot seventeen civilians. The one bright spot in all this is that our system of law (despite the wranglings of the lawyers) still maintains a person’s innocence until proven guilty. Let’s hope the system prevails in spite of the lawyers. As Kant noted long ago: without courts of law we are barely above the level of the brutes.

Be that as it may, the story goes on, There was also disagreement over the decision to put Bales’ wife on the Today show, where she said her husband showed no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, potentially damaging Bales’ most likely defense. What’s going on here? The defendant’s wife is dragged on a talk-show and attests that her husband seemed perfectly normal, though in an interview with ABC earlier she said he didn’t seem to know where he was or why. In any event, it is easy to understand why this must frustrate a lawyer who knows full well that Bales’ wife is not a trained psychologist and also sees that the best way to save his client’s life is to claim temporary insanity. But that’s the way we do things these days: we try the defendant in public while the public is still interested — interest does indeed wane rather quickly, as we know — and then we take the defendant to court.

So we have the man’s wife going on talk shows offering her unprofessional opinion about her husband’s mental condition. Meanwhile, wrangling lawyers argue publicly over the way to try their client who waits to see if he is found guilty, first in the public eye, then in the eye of 12 good men and women who are supposed to be impartial and presumably have not already judged the man before the trial begins. Again, if it weren’t so serious it would be funny — and if the families of the murdered victims back in Afghanistan weren’t waiting to see that justice is done.