March 2006


We used to be a nation of laws. People all over the world might criticize us for this or that, but they always had to admit that we were a nation committed to law and order. This is regrettably no longer true. We are all affected - tarred with unspeakable crimes and unpardonable offenses - for which we and our children will be held responsible.

At the end of WWII, the aim for most German soldiers was to surrender to the US or British - anything to avoid being captured by the Russians. They trusted us to treat them humanely - that we would at least uphold the letter of the law. Sometimes that was a good assumption. It was the commonly held belief, both at home and abroad, that Americans were good people generally and that good people obeyed the law; particularly our own Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

This theme was thundered in again and again by Hollywood films that portrayed the crimes of the evil enemies we'd fought and overcome. They were cheats and liars who used torture and deceit to achieve their evil ends at any cost and by any means. We were good an virtuous and law abiding. Even when we were at war with an unprincipled Communist adversary, still we played fair and treated our POWs humanely. We were proud of being signatories to the Geneva Conventions and we abhorred and denounced people who were not. It was the Viet Kong who tortured our POWs and treated them inhumanely. In places like the "Hanoi Hilton" our soldiers were maimed and maltreated, kept in "tiger cages" and tortured into fake confessions and other indignities.

We accepted this picture of our national virtue as gospel. When it turned out that of our men (and women) did bad things - often the same things we railed about the enemy doing - we held a trial and punished these exceptions and vowed never to let it happen again.

It was a nice fantasy, while it lasted.

Our government today proclaims its right to torture people, if they have a good reason to. We maintain prison camps in many places, such as Guantanemo Bay, Cuba and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. We kidnap people in our own country and elsewhere, sending them to be tortured or killed in other countries (extraordinary rendition). We maintain the largest school of terrorism and torture in the world (The School of the Americas (SOA), in 2001 renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,"), whose graduates have committed some of the worst atrocities in the Western Hemisphere in the past fifty years.

Some of my more right-wing associates say things like: "so what?" "you don't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs" "you can't fight terrorism with a bunch of boy scouts" "You can't make the nation safe by praying for peace."

I can understand their attitude, but what I can't do is rationalize amoral worldpolitik into a moral stance with mom and apple pie and little Johnny playing in the yard. I can't do this because I can't ethically do things to people that I don't want them to do to me. Didn't these people ever hear of the golden rule? If it is wrong, you shouldn't do it, even if it works. Isn't that the basic foundation for all past and current theories on how to get into heaven?

I keep coming back to Sir Thomas Moore: "I think that when statesmen forsake their private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos." The contemporary science fiction writer Octavia Butler said much the same, when she elaborated a kind of golden political rule:

"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery."

In the modern world, we need to judge the things not by the words that are used by the proponents of this or detractors of that but on the effect that this or that has upon the world as a whole and its people. Similarly, we have to cast off the fantasies and phantoms woven by skillful liars in description of the men and women who lead us and evaluate them instead in the scales of our own hearts by their own deeds and the effect that those deeds have had upon all the world's people.

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