Independence Day

Charles SwiftJust in time for independence day, a reminder of what makes us Americans (wmv):

Chris Matthews:…There is another side to this argument. Let me ask you: Do you believe that people who fight us as terrorists deserve Geneva Convention treatment?

Lt. Cmdr. Charles Smith: It’s not whether they deserve it or not, it’s how we conduct ourselves. It has to do with where… If we say that our opponent can cause us not to follow the rules any more, then we’ve lost who we are. We’re the good guys. We’re the guys who follow the rules. The people we fight are the bad guys. And we show that every day when we follow the rules regardless of what they do. It’s what sets us apart. It’s what makes us great. And in my mind, it’s what makes us undefeatable.

Good guys follow the rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what following the rules means. Part of this comes of the comments (now nearly 250) on an earlier post related to plagiarism. Several people in that post suggested that people who break the rules come out ahead. Plagiarism has shown up in newsrooms and on book editors desks a lot more frequently lately, and there is a growing awareness of professors being caught up in plagiarism scandals, as well as other forms of cheating.

What about Batman?

The reason for this unease is that I have always been one willing to break the rules. I believe strongly in the ends justifying the means, when those ends represent a greater good rather than merely personal gain. That some rule-breaking leads to personal gain does not particularly bother me, as long as the sum good to society is positive. That’s why I feel vindicated in speeding at times, and why I am not particularly vexed by many kinds of (not-for-profit) music piracy.

Bush sucker punches opponentI think part of the problem is that I share with our current president a deep arrogance. The rules, particularly the rule of law, have emerged because they are an effective way of dealing with social problems. While breaking the rules, as suggested by the caption at left, might feel satisfying, it is unjust not only because it violates an assumed agreement, but because it does so to an individual’s gain. Likewise, while vengeance may be a part of the legal structure, it distances it from its most obvious excesses. Consider, for example, a recent case in which a vigilante crowd took the “law into it’s own hands”, and as a result perpetrated a great injustice.

Principled rule breaking

Which gets us to the “spirit” of the law (or of the rule). The police abuse their legal power far more often than is right. A friend has recently fought with the law, and–not surprisingly–the law won. To be more accurate, the charges levied against him have mostly been dropped, but he had to suffer the consequences of this abuse of power (arrest, detention, expense, physical harm), and so it’s not exactly true that it “all worked out in the end.” Sometimes, following the rules harms not only you individually, but is a net setback for society. So how to decide?

I’ve read a little on ethics, and a bit on law, and the truth is I don’t have an answer. I do get the feeling though, that socially we are more forgiving of those who break the rules now than we have been in the past. As I’ve said, that doesn’t particularly bother me–but what does bother me is that people are breaking the rules largely out of sloth or avarice. And I think many of those who support the president do so in part because he manages to break the rules to his own benefit so often.

It seems like as a nation we have lost something of our moral compass. I am a social liberal, but I arrive at that position through a principled view of what is important to us as a nation. One of those things is respect for the law, and respect for the ideals that form that law. And for this, Charles Swift deserves to be celebrated as a national hero.

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  1. Posted 7/3/2006 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Something that has been bugging me about the military argument is the revolutionary war angle. I’m no military historian but I believe part of the argument as to why we won the revolutionary war was due to guerilla warfare tactics instead of the shoot-in-lines BS that the British employed. Wasn’t that breaking the rules? Couldn’t we (effectively) replace the colonial soldiers with terrorists and replace the guy responding to Matthews above with a British officer?

    I’m not sure what distinguishes the two (maybe it’s that we try, or at least used to try, not to kill civilians).

  2. Posted 7/3/2006 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Your assertions would be on the right path if the Geneva Conventions were applicable in the case at hand.

    Despite so many Democrats and other left wing extremists’ assertions, however, they are not. If you read the text of the conventions, you will see that POWs, in order to qualify for protections under articles of the conventions, have to be closely affiliated with a state power. In the case of those arrested in the theaters of war in the middle east, this does not apply. Neither the Taliban, nor Al Qaeda or any other group of terrorists (or whatever name you would like to give them) have ever represented a state.

    As for treating them nicely, we are. Despite the fact that the USA is not an islamic nation (yet), prisoners are afforded all the privileges their “religion” demands. Being the corrupt individuals they are, they would naturally always complain about their conditions.

    As far as I’m concerned no law we are obliged to recognize by our constitution has been broken and if the prisoners don’t like their condition they should have maybe not participated in their respective conflicts.

  3. Posted 7/3/2006 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Joe: You are absolutely right, and I think that is w. It’s clear that we were only as successful in the Revolutionary War because we were willing to break the rules. Those who did so had to believe that they were fulfilling a higher good. But the same can be said of those who put a jet into the towers.

    In fact, the US has targeted civilians in Iraq, so the civilian line isn’t one that seems particularly clear either. And current forces are now mired in a series of illegal abuses of power (prisoner abuse, rape, murder) that are clearly not about following the rules.

    But the reality aside, I think the idea of the rule of law is a central American ideal. I don’t think that it would be hard to associate this with some of the rhetoric surrounding independence–i.e., equal protection and avoiding the capriciousness of the royals.

    Fabio: Luckily for the prisoners, such debate is now moot. The only opinion that matters here is of the Supreme Court. For all practical purposes, the Geneva Conventions now do apply to our prisoners. A lot of that comes down to how you interpret “international.” Frankly, I agree that a close reading would seem to exclude them, but luckily the SC has decided otherwise, and that is now the law of the land. It will require a congressional act to change that.

  4. Posted 7/4/2006 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Dr. H: Good to see that we agree on the definitions. IMO, however, Congress should now move to redefine the SCOTUS’ jurisdiction as they clearly have ruled contrary to established law in this case. I am of the originalist persuasion and see the constitution as law and not as a biological organism (just like one of the justices). As such, this case to me is yet another example of activist judges imposing a left-wing extremist opinion on the federal government and by extension on us. If laypersons like myself and educated educators like you (not all professors are educated) can see how the Geneva conventions don’t apply to members of non-state groups, then this fact should be obvious to Supreme Court justices.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Alex Halavais seems to be expressing a similar view in this post on his blog, where he argues that respect for the law and the ideals behind it are important for the American project. He also links to an excellent earlier post on plagiarism which every would-be cheat should read (and steal). […]

  2. […] For the Fourth of July, Paul Stamatiou sent me this video of a guy blowing up his PowerMac G4. While some people wrote something more profound about it (See what makes Americans different), hearing all the firework around my neighborhood just makes me feel like blowing stuff up. Ah… reminds me of my childhood days when I’d take all the gun powder from little pop-pops and collect them in film canisters for bigger explosions. I’m so lucky I haven’t lost a limb! […]

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