Hot buttons and the people who push them-3

When it comes to how to find and push hot buttons in the US (see here and here for the first two parts of this series), we can all learn from the master, the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. These people are so off-the-wall hateful in their message that they are almost a self-parody.

Phelps and his small church consisting of mostly his extended family (he has 13 children of his own) hate gay people with a passion. He and his church members started their crusade by traveling around the country demonstrating at the funerals of gay people (especially those with high profile deaths like Matthew Shepard where they knew media would be there), with anti-gay signs.

This was annoying enough (especially to the grieving people at the funerals) but did not create enough of a ruckus to satisfy Phelps. After all, picking on gay people is hardly newsworthy, given the strength of anti-gay sentiment in this country. So Phelps cast around, trying to find ways to create a bigger impact, something that would really get under the skin of a lot of people. And he found one. His church members decided that in addition to protesting gays, they would also protest “enablers” of the gay lifestyle. This broadened the targets of their attacks to almost everyone.

They struck it big when they started demonstrating at the funerals of dead soldiers. At one such funeral “members of the church stomped on the American flag and held signs thanking God for the explosives” that killed the soldier being buried. How are soldiers “enablers” of gays, you ask? Easy, at least for Phelps, who displays an affinity for syllogistic arguments. Soldiers defend the US. The US harbors gays. Ergo, soldiers enable the gay lifestyle.

So members of the Westboro Baptist Church travel the country picketing military funerals with signs saying that the soldiers deserved to die because god hates them for defending a country that tolerates homosexuality and adultery.

They also demonstrated at the funeral of the miners killed at the Sago disaster, with “God hates miners” signs in addition to the standard signs against gays and gay enablers. How are miners gay enablers, you ask again? Well, miners support the US economy and keep it running. The US harbors gays. Ergo, miners are gay enablers.

They even demonstrated at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Why her, you ask? I’m sure you can fill in Phelps’ reasoning for yourself.

What do you do with people like this who are being so obnoxious? It seems to me that publicity and attention is what such people really crave. And Phelps found a really hot button with the military funerals because now state legislatures are proposing laws that restrict demonstrations at military funerals, at least to greater than a certain distance.

That is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong thing to do. What it does do is guarantee that Phelps will get the spotlight as he goes to court and eventually, as seems likely, win his case (perhaps in the Supreme Court) on first amendment grounds. And Phelps will take credit for being a martyr for free speech rights.

His case is like that of the Maryland man who got annoyed with his neighbor over some triviality concerning his dog, and mooned his neighbor. He was taken to court for indecent exposure but was acquitted because of the first amendment. That man now actually calls himself as an “American hero.”

If we could only learn to take control of our hot buttons we would take away the only weapon these obnoxious people have.

If the families of the slain soldiers could, instead of looking for laws to protect them, ask the military to designate a few people to go up to Phelps’s crowd at these funerals and smile and thank them for their concern and for taking the trouble to come to the funeral, then Phelps might get deflated. Or if people come with other signs saying things like “God loves gays” and “Only gays go to heaven” and stand near Phelps group, then that shifts the attention away from Phelps. Or they could stand with those signs outside Phelps’s church before and after Sunday service.

In my opinion, humor, parody, satire, and gentle ridicule are far more effective at neutralizing obnoxious people than physical threats and legal actions, because the latter enables them to play the hero role while the former makes them merely figures of fun. People who deliberately set out to be obnoxious are (going into pop psychology mode for a moment) usually humorless and insecure, and it is disturbing to them to be ignored or considered ridiculous.

As I have said before. I am a firm believer in the first amendment and free speech rights. We have to protect them because those rights are needed to protect those who are using it in the service of the common good. If in the process of protecting them, we also allow people like Phelps to pester grieving families or some newspapers to goad some Muslims into intemperate behavior, then so be it. (See an interesting article on this in the Guardian.)

But my right to say what I feel does not mean that I am to be commended for using that right whenever and wherever I please. It is true that I have the right to insult someone (within limits). If that person is provoked enough that he or she threatens me with physical harm, I should have the right to be protected. But I shouldn’t expect praise for my exercise and subsequent “defense” of free speech rights. It seems like praise is what the newspapers who published the Muslim cartoons, Phelps, and even the Maryland mooner, expect.

The so-called Golden Rule of human behavior, that says that we should treat other people the way that we would like to be treated, is articulated almost universally by religions and societies. It sets a high bar for behavior and is a hard rule to follow.

I would like to suggest a somewhat lower standard of behavior, say the Silver Rule, and that is: We should try not to be gratuitously offensive to others and we should try not to take offense easily.

If people simply followed that rule, life would be a lot more pleasant.

POST SCRIPT: The Cheney Chronicles

Trying to shed himself of his secretive and reclusive image, the VP has been making the rounds.

David Letterman shows clips of the VP giving a speech after the shooting, talking frankly about himself. . .

. . . and then Jay Leno interviews him . . .

. . . and then Cheney, showing that he has talents other than starting disastrous wars, gives a concert where he sings his version of the Johnny Cash hit Folsom Prison Blues, the song that contains the immortal line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” (Warning: Explicit lyrics because in the song Cheney repeats the phrase that he used against Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the US Senate.)

Baby killers

I saw the documentary film Winter Soldiers on Wednesday night at Strosacker and it was a very moving experience. (The film will be shown again on Sunday at 1:30pm. I strongly recommend it. See below for details.)

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, more than 125 veterans of the Vietnam war came to a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit and spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The documentary gives voice to these soldiers as they describe what they had seen and done.
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Secret Agent Vice President

What amazed me is that after Vice President Cheney shot 78-year old Harry Whittington, the administration started by essentially blaming the man for getting shot.

From what I have read (see here and here), the consensus among bird hunters is that in such incidents, the fault almost always lies with the shooter. It is like rear-end collisions, where placing the blame is a no-brainer because it takes an extraordinary series of events for the person who gets rear-ended to be at fault. But this is an administration that however much it messes things up, always finds other people to blame and insists that what it did was right.

The Daily Show satirized this attitude with correspondent Rob Corddry saying, “Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be the 78 year old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face.”

After it became clear that the attempt to blame Whittington was not getting any traction and was inviting outright ridicule and contempt, after four days, the Vice President in an interview absolves Whittington from blame.

What is interesting about the whole story is the reticence to reveal information about the incident and the sometimes contradictory nature of the information that is disclosed.

For example, although there were reports of three hunters in the party, the identity of the third was kept quiet and was only revealed after much prodding to be that of Pamela Willeford, the US Ambassador to Switzerland. Since she was an eyewitness to the events, why was her identity not revealed earlier? Why was she not questioned about her version of events? After all, she is a public employee.

Noted criminal lawyer and Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz also questions the reasons for the 14/18/24-hour delay (depending on who is reporting) in revealing the details of the shooting, and brings his experience to speculate on possibilities.

And others are questioning the story that the shooting distance was 30 yards since that does not square with the density of pellets that hit the victim, and the degree of penetration of the pellets. Those facts suggest that he may have been much closer, say 30 feet.

If this is a simple accidental shooting, why is it so hard to have a simple, straightforward, accounting of the events? In fact it is amazing that the VP waited four days before speaking on the matter, and then, rather than give a full-fledged news conference, he spoke only to Brit Hume of Fox News, who can be counted upon to be very sympathetic, if not outright sycophantic.
Why was it so hard for the Vice President to come forward quickly and publicly apologize and say that he is terribly sorry about the accident and the resulting pain he has caused Mr. Whittington and his family? He could have turned it into an important lesson learned, that even people experienced with guns can make mistakes and thus should always exercise extreme caution when handling firearms. That seems to me to be the gracious thing to have done. (I am assuming that he has already done all this privately to the Whittingtons. If he hasn’t, that becomes even more appallingly ungracious behavior.)

The Vice-President seems to think that he can simultaneously have all the privileges of a private citizen while having all the perks of being on the taxpayer payroll. As James Wolcott points out:

The question the press should ask itself when it has time to pause and (ha-ha) reflect is: Why has Dick Cheney been allowed to be secret-agent vice president since 9/11? Everyone foolishly accepted that he needed to be in an undisclosed location in case of terrorist attack, but there hasn’t been a terrorist attack and Cheney has used the 9/11 moment as a permanent opaque bullet-proof shield between himself and accountability on everything pertaining to his office. Has there ever been an administration where the vice president was more aloof, arrogant, and stealthier than the president himself? As Dana Bash said the other night on CNN, the vice president’s office routinely refuses to let anyone know what the veep’s schedule is, what his travel plans are, who he’s meeting with, etc. They didn’t know he was spending the weekend shooting quail and the occasional fellow hunter until the news broke in Texas. He’s an elected official, which he seems to have forgotten, as has the press, as has the Republican Party, as have the American people.

Good points. The VP is not a private citizen, although he seems to think he can act like one. As many people have pointed out, the media fuss over this incident is surprising since they glossed right over all the much more serious things the VP has been involved in, especially in making the fraudulent case for attacking Iraq.

Just this very week, on February 10 it was reported that Cheney’s indicted former chief-of-staff Lewis Libby “testified that his bosses instructed him to leak information to reporters from a high-level intelligence report that suggested Iraq was trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, according to court records in the CIA leak case.

Cheney was one of the “superiors” I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby said had authorized him to make the disclosures, according to sources familiar with the investigation into Libby’s discussions with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame.”

That criminal investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is ongoing.

Then Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 said on February 10 “In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made,” Pillar wrote. And Cheney was one of the people who made those decisions.

These news items, although very serious, have received scant attention from the media because of the shooting on the very next day (February 11), which led comedian Bill Maher to joke that the VP may have deliberately shot Whittington to draw attention away from those more serious policy revelations.

So why the media focus on the shooting? After all, no one is seriously suggesting that at bottom it was anything more than an accident. Some are suggesting that the way the shooting episode news release was handled is the straw that broke the camel’s back. At some point, the White House media got fed up with the almost obsessive secrecy and stonewalling that they have been receiving on so many issues.

For example, just on Tuesday, the White House press secretary in the morning was trying to laugh off the whole shooting incident by joking about it and then during his daily briefing in the afternoon, while knowing that Whittington’s condition had taken a turn for the worse that day with a heart attack, and did not share this information with the assembled unwitting press corps. This kind of secrecy is hard to understand.

Perhaps the media are taking their frustrations out on the White House using a story that is simple to understand and write about, even though it does not have the serious policy implications of the Iraq war and the other controversies of which the VP is at the center.

POST SCRIPT: Parody film trailers

Sleepless in Seattle as a stalker thriller? The Shining as a warm family comedy? These are some of the parody film trailers circulating on the internet that take scenes from the real film and present them as belonging to a completely different genre. Of course, Brokeback Mountain has also spawned its share of parodies such as Brokeback to the Future and Top Gun 2: Brokeback Squadron.

To see them (and others), go here.

Harry Belafonte and the politics of language

In 1946, George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language which is something that anyone interested in politics or writing should read because of the deep insights that Orwell provides about how to learn to write clearly, and the ways that language can be abused, especially by people trying to use it to serve political ends.

I was reminded of this article again by the flap created by Harry Belafonte when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.” (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit to Case today has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)
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Harry Belafonte

For those of you fortunate enough to be in the Cleveland area, Harry Belafonte has been invited by the University Program Board to speak at Case Western Reserve University. The talk will be in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. The talk is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For more information and to get tickets see here. (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte’s visit has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)
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The threat of terrorist attacks – 2

The recent release of an audiotape by Bin Laden offering a truce in the war may be used to kick off the election year season of ratcheting up the fear of terrorism.

In his message bin Laden points to attacks in other countries and promises a new attack on the US and explains the reason for not doing so earlier:

As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.

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The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting ‘soft’ targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don’t mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one’s safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack ‘soft’ targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn’t we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University’s STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set “The Record Straight on the Year’s Biggest Science Reporting Flubs,” which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today’s teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Suffer little children

Glenn Greenwald’s blog Unclaimed Territory has become a must-read for me. He writes passionately, knowledgeably, and well about legal matters, and particularly the protection of civil rights.

His recent post is another excellent analysis of the way that people who should know better are complicit in the eroding of civil liberties and the rights protected in the constitution. Rather than merely being at the edge of the slippery slope, these people have slid completely down it and are now wallowing in the muck at the bottom.

Here are some key points of Greenwald’s essay to whet your appetite to read the whole thing:

There is a widespread, tacit assumption that no matter how apathetic and inattentive Americans become, there is still some line which they will not allow the Government to cross when it comes to exceeding or abusing the limits of government power. That assumption has taken a huge beating over the last four years, and is now in serious doubt.

Americans have sat by more or less passively by while this Administration detained American citizens and threw them into a military prison without charges being brought, without a trial, and without even allowing them access to a lawyer. Many are basically indifferent to revelations that the Bush Administration is eavesdropping on American citizens in secret and with no oversight of any kind. And worst of all, a sizable portion of the population is acquiescing to the fact that we have a President who was just discovered breaking the law, and rather than expressing shame or remorse once he was caught, has vowed to continue doing it based on the theory that he has the right to violate the law and that it’s for our own good.

It is sometimes hard to put one’s finger on exactly what motivates such passive acceptance of these obvious government abuses, but Jonah Goldberg puked up a paragraph last night in the Corner which really captures everything that is rancid and decaying in our country and which casts an ugly though illuminating light on all of this.

In his little item, Jonah was talking about – and, of course, defending – the strip searching of the 10-year-old girl in the case where Judge Alito ruled that the search warrant issued to the Police authorized searching of the girl. Jonah then went further – much further – and defended all strip-searching of all children, even without a warrant, whenever the Police thinks the kids’ parents are “drug dealers”:

STRIP SEARCHES [Jonah Goldberg]
I understand the need for following the procedural niceties, but as a plain moral common sense issue, if you are a drug dealer and keep drugs on the premises with your child, you get zero-point-zero sympathy from me if your kids are searched, warrant or no. It may be wrong for the cops to do it. But you are not a victim for choosing a life where you can rationally expect to expose your kids to far greater risks than a search by a polite cop. The kid’s a victim — of bad parents.

Thanks to the ceaseless fear-mongering of this Administration, we are becoming – excuse the grotesque imagery – a Nation of Jonah Goldbergs, scared and lazy creatures who sit around believing that the Government is justified – even obligated – to act literally without constraint against the Bad People, the ones who are deemed to be Bad not pursuant to any “procedural niceties” but simply by the unchecked decree of the Government. These Jonah Goldbergs love to talk tough. But they are repulsively coddled and effete, whining about every perceived petty injustice which affects them but breezily endorsing the most limitless abuses of others, as long as the “others” seem sufficiently demonized and far enough away.

It is truly nauseating to watch the basic principles of our country, which have preserved both liberty and stability with unprecedented brilliance over the last 200 years, be inexorably whittled away and treated like petty nuisances by the depraved Jonah Goldbergs among us. It is a mindset based on a truly toxic brew of glib self-absorption, sickly laziness and profound ignorance, and it is being easily manipulated by an Administration which is demanding – and acquiring – more and more power in exchange for coddling and protecting the little Jonah Goldbergs of the world.

I think that what differentiates people who value and fight to protect constitutional protections from those who are willing to have them compromised is whether you are willing and able to imagine yourself in the situation of the people at the receiving end of this treatment and how you would feel if it happened to you and your family and friends, even if you are a person who has never done anything that could be even remotely described as of questionable legality. As Greenwald says:

What makes Jonah’s post conclusively reflective of not only his ideological corruption but also his severe character flaw is that Jonah would never be quite as breezy or casual about lawless strip searches if it was him or his daughter being subjected to them.

But Jonah is convinced that abuses of this sort will never happen to him and he therefore doesn’t care that they happen to others. To the contrary, he eagerly wants other people – the alleged, suspected “drug dealers” and “terrorists” and other Bad People – to be subjected to those abuses because he thinks it will protect him from bad things. That’s why I described his thinking as a mindset based on fear and petty selfishness. He is willing to give up and even denigrate the most basic liberties of our country because he thinks he doesn’t need them and would be better off without them.

Notice that Goldberg’s acceptance of what must have been a traumatic experience for the child is because of an allegation against the father. In this, Goldberg’s position is similar to that of John Yoo, now a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and before that a former deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel of the Department of Justice where he wrote a memo on September 25, 2001 justifying Presidential power to do practically anything he wants, which has since been interpreted to include the torturing of captives around the world. His views seem to have got even worse after going into academia.

Listen to this exchange in an debate with Douglass Cassel at the University of Notre Dame (audio available):

Cassel: If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty

Cassel: Also no law by Congress – that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo…

Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

So there you are. People like Goldberg and Yoo are not only happy to acquiesce in the torture of adults who are suspects, they are even willing to have a suspect’s children be brutalized, as long as the President thinks it is a good idea. Yes, we are truly a nation that values families.

In a speech yesterday to The American Constitution Society and The Liberty Coalition (full transcript here), former Vice President Al Gore made the following point:

Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is “yes” then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can’t he do?

The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch’s claims of these previously unrecognized powers: “If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.”

Whatever happened to that quaint notion that this is “a government of laws, not men?”

POST SCRIPT: Other examples of moral courage

Last week I wrote about Hugh Thompson, Jr. For more about his rescue of Vietnamese civilians from slaughter, and others in the US military like him who spoke out at what they saw as wrong actions, and how badly they were treated because of their courageous acts, see here. Clancy Sigal writes:

They include Army specialist Joseph Darby, of the 372d Military Police Company, who reported on his fellow soldiers who were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. His family has received threats to their personal safety in their Maryland hometown. And Captain Ian Fishback, the 82d Airborne West Pointer, who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried vainly for seventeen months to persuade superiors that detainee torture was a systematic, and not a ‘few bad apples’, problem inside the U.S. military. In frustration, he wrote to Senator McCain, which led directly to McCain’s anti-torture amendment. I wouldn’t want to bet on the longevity of Captain Fishback’s military career.

Thompson’s death also reminded me of Captain Lawrence Rockwood, of the 10th Mountain Division. Ten years ago, Rockwood was deployed to Haiti where, against orders, he personally investigated detainee abuse at the National Penitentiary in the heart of Port au Prince. He was court-martialed for criticizing the U.S. military’s refusal to intervene, and kicked out of the Army. While still on duty, he kept a photograph on his desk of a man he greatly admired. It was of Captain Hugh Thompson.

The pettiness of some congressional bribes

In following the Abramoff affair in the media and other past scandals, I was struck by something that Adam McKay gave voice to, and that is the relative smallness of the amounts used to bribe these congresspersons. It is not that the fact that some of these Congresspeople can be bribed but that their price is so low. According to the <a href= New York Times: “Alice Fisher, an assistant attorney general, said Mr. Abramoff offered up gifts to government officials that included an all-expense paid trip to Scotland “to play golf on a world-famous course, tickets and travel to the Super Bowl in Florida, tickets for concerts and other events in Washington, repeated and regular meals at his upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions.”.

Dinners, concert and Super Bowl tickets, seem to me to be rather cheap to buy off a congressperson who earns $158,000 per year and in addition has enormous perks and extremely generous benefits. Why would anyone run the risk of being accused of taking bribes just for the sake of a steak dinner and whiskey or whatever it is they eat and drink at “upscale restaurants.” Even if one was a glutton, how much could it cost? $100? $200? And the same for concert tickets. Surely they could afford it?

Maybe the campaign contributions were large. And the trip to Scotland could perhaps run into a couple of thousand dollars, but surely if they really, really wanted to play golf at a famous course in Scotland, they could have afforded to on their salaries.

I think that it cannot be just the amount of money involved, although money has to be a contributing factor. It must also be the fact that being bribed is used as a marker of the fact that you have power, and some people like others to think that they are important and have the sense of power over people and events.

I think that being offered a bribe must be gratifying to the ego of such people. I also suspect that being offered a bribe someone who you think is important (because they are rich and/or celebrities and/or powerful and/or well-connected) is more valuable than being offered the same bribe by just regular people.

For example, if I offered to take a congressperson out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in return for doing me a favor, he or she would probably laugh at me or be insulted or even have me arrested. But if Donald Trump took that congressperson out for the same dinner, he probably would be granted the favor. The fact that someone supposedly important is paying attention to you, is spending some of their precious time with you, is fawning over you, gives much greater weight to the occasion and makes you feel important too, and generous (and even indebted) towards them. So you do them the favor. You take the petty bribe.

There are some people who do take bribes having a significant value. People like the Republican congressman from San Diego Randy “Duke” Cunningham who resigned after being found to have taken millions from defense contractors to steer contracts their way. (See a video of a conversation between MSNBC talk show hosts Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough where the latter, who used to be a Congressman, is candid about the blatant quid pro quo that exists between lobbyist payoffs and the favors they get in return.) There are also people in lower profile occupations who enrich themselves by taking a large number of small bribes from many people. These people clearly see bribes as a revenue stream, a steady augmentation of their income.

But for the others in all professions and in all walks of life who take relatively small bribes despite being paid well, I suspect that ego and a feeling of power play a big role.

One occasionally hears or reads about college professors who are approached with bribes for grades. I cannot imagine that the bribes offered are significant enough to make it worthwhile in any tangible sense, so I suspect that if professor succumbs to this kind of temptation, he or she does so for the same reasons given above, because it appeals to his or her sense of importance.

In all my years of teaching in both Sri Lanka and the US, I am happy to report that have never been approached with anything that could be even remotely construed as a bribe. Whether this is because my students have very high ethical standards or they think that my power ego is too weak or unworthy of being flattered, I cannot say. But I am thankful all the same.

POST SCRIPT: Britain taking the lead?

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often derided as ‘Bush’s poodle,’ eager to please his master by doing everything asked of him. But veteran journalist John Pilger points out that when it comes to criminalizing dissidents and opponents, Blair (and England) may be slightly ahead of the US.

The courage to stand up for what is right

It takes enormous courage to stand up and oppose one’s peers when they are doing something wrong, especially so when it is in the middle of a war and you have to make a snap judgment. Hugh Thompson Jr. was a person who had that kind of rare courage. He was a young 24-year old helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War who came across fellow American soldiers in the process of massacring Vietnamese civilians during the infamous My Lai massacre in March 1968. The events that immediately preceded his arrival were described this way:
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