Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Brave Spirit

The Aug. 13 New York Times carried a report of the university press' surrender, which quoted its director, John Donatich, as saying that in general he has "never blinked" in the face of controversy, but "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question."
Christopher Hitchens "Yale Surrenders"
While I wholeheartedly agree with Hitchen's lambasting of Yale University Press' surrender, I feel that he missed an opportunity. Rather than saving his attack on the very idea anyone taking "the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants" upon themselves for the end of his piece, it should have been the whole piece, with the actions of YUP as a footnote, rather than the centerpiece.

It's become commonplace among terrorists and criminals to shift the blame for the actions to others, absolutely denying any responsibility or agency. We see it all the time in the movies, and hear/read about it in the news in real life.
"Is it going to be one or two body bags?" Shenkman asked the 21-year police veteran. "It's going to be your decision."
SWAT team describes Conn. standoff
Perhaps distressingly, law enforcement has responded to this by, to a degree, placing responsibility for their own actions in the hand of the criminals they confront.
Although [Police Chief William] Bratton has adamantly maintained that Pena was responsible for his and his daughter’s deaths, he said the realization that it was a police officer who actually shot the girl was hard to take.
War of words escalates in deadly L.A. shooting
Part of the problem is the blurring of the concepts of responsibility and blame, and part of the problem is a general social inability to accept that sometimes, the right thing to do really, really sucks. So my issue with Bratton's statement isn't that the police officers should accept any guilt for Suzie Peña's death, but that police agencies shouldn't feel the need to describe their actions as the responsibility of another person. José Peña was shooting at officers - the sensible thing to do was to shoot back - the presence of a toddler as a human shield doesn't, ultimately, change that calculus.

What we're seeing from John Donatich's statement is this concept being taken a step further, to the idea that doing something that someone might respond badly to is to be guilty of whatever unfolds. The danger in this is not simply that we become a nation of cravens, seeking appeasement at every turn, and beating ourselves up when our efforts don't control the situation in the way we think they should. It's important to remember that the de-facto application of the law responds to the way in which we do things. In effect, if we let this go on long enough, we run the risk of making being insufficiently deferential to the sensitivities of madmen and criminals a affirmative defense, in the court of public opinion, as if it were a form of duress. You can say that the court of public opinion has very little legal standing, and you'd be right. But if American history has taught us anything, it's that while the letter of the law may not be subject to popular approval, the spirit of the law often is.

And if we ever let even the spirit of the law come to agree with Donatich, we're all going to feel very constrained.

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