Thursday, November 27, 2008

Who's Bad?

Dahlia Lithwick has an article in Slate in which she takes aim at the idea we're better off as a nation if we just let bygones be bygones in our execution of the "War on Terror," and that people who are pressing for prosecutions of Bush Administration officials who okayed things like torture are being naïve, or placing partisanship over harmony. (Side question: Why is it that we lambaste the Japanese when they go out of their way to maintain a harmonious society, while acting as though harmony is the only thing that stands between us an savagery when we feel the need to promote it, regardless how flimsy the reasoning?)

During the piece, Lithwick makes a very interesting point. "Michael Mukasey holds that those who authorized lawbreaking did so out of 'a good-faith desire to protect the citizens of our Nation from a future terrorist attack.' Witness after witness will tell the truth commission that they were scared; they were making quick decisions in the heat of battle, and that their hearts were pure." This may, however unintentionally, be the central issue that we need to deal with.

I have come to suspect that the point behind American jurisprudence has gone from the sanctioning of those who do Bad Things (violate the laws of the land), as a means of preserving order, to demonstrating our power over those that we understand to be Bad People (boogey men), as a means of reassuring ourselves that all is right with the world. Lithwick touches on this when she asks: "Is the truth that if we torture strange men with strange names, it's not lawbreaking?" Replace "strange" with "bad," (or, if you prefer, "evil"*) and I suspect that a lot of people would say: "Yes," regardless of their names. Once the point of the Law becomes to separate the Good people from the Bad people, it takes on a much different character than it otherwise would, being willing to gloss over the transgressions of the Good, and ready to punish the otherwise acceptable in the Bad.

If you read the rhetoric of the Bush Administration in a certain way, the point behind the War on Terror is that terrorists are Bad Guys. And as Bad Guys, they will do Bad Things, and so every moment that you leave them alive and free, you run the risk of some undeserving soul having an awful fate laid upon them. And nothing other than putting and end to their lives and freedoms will change that. And if the law happens to prevent that, more proof that the law was written by people who just don't understand what's really at stake here. It's seductive. It's the flip side of It's wrong to do (or let others do) Bad Things while just Following Orders. Because, if that's the case, isn't it also wrong to allow Bad People to do Bad Things while just Obeying the Law?

* For extra cynicism credit, you can also replace "strange" with "Muslim."

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