Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pretty Please

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has expressed "disappointment" that the Associated Press decided to publish photos of a dying Marine Lance Corporal Joshua M. Bernard. He cited the pain that would be caused to Bernard's family if his suffering were allowed to be seen by the public. While I understand the family's position, Gates should not have become involved.

We, as a society have not, at any point, decided who is allowed to control the message about themselves, and who is not. Part of the point behind the First Amendment is that Congress, and government more broadly, is not allowed to solely own its image through using legal sanctions against those who would publicize things that conflict with the image that Congress wishes to project.

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
People die in wars. Sometimes they die in brutal ways. And sometimes, other people learn of the details. I am not aware of any rule, even an unspoken one, that provides for the families of service personnel to have the final say over the message and public image of their loved ones. If we chose to create one, that is fine. But there isn't one yet, and therefore it is inappropriate for people to be held to it.

As for Gates, I am disappointed in him. Somewhere along the way, he seems to have forgotten that he made a request - precisely because he was not in the position to give an instruction. The recipient of a request may chose to honor or deny it - such is the very nature of a request. When I worked with children, I was very adamant about this point. "When you ask me a question," I would tell them, "I may answer you 'yes' or 'no.' If you do not wish to hear any answer I might give you - do not ask me the question." I was able to get a group of emotionally disturbed 13 year-olds to understand this concept - I would think that Gates would understand it was well.

Judgment and decency, as wonderful as they are, do not, and should not trump law, policy or constitutional right. Otherwise, you cannot claim to live under the rule of law, as judgment and decency are both quite subjective, and are easily warped to serve the needs of the few, at the expense of the many. Those who are unable to understand that others have different ideas of judgment and decency than themselves are perhaps unworthy to claim judgment and decency themselves.

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