Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disobedience, Civil and Not-So-Civil

Disobedience of the Civil Kind

I have a beef with certain people who enagage in civil disobedience and then expect to be treated as if they did nothing wrong. Should they be treated with human decency and respect? Of course. But should they be treated as if they did nothing at all? No, I don't think so. I want to say why.

It's not the idea that people should be allowed to walk free that bothers me. There are reasonable arguments made about why we might sometimes not want to punish someone who commits an act of civil disobedience. We all know that's true. We tell people not to kill one another, but there are times when we all agree that it's legitimate to do so—certain cases of self-defense, for example. So my gripe here isn't about that.

“Non-violence, publicity and a willingness to accept punishment are often regarded as marks of disobedients’ fidelity to the legal system in which they carry out their protest.”

  —Civil Disobedience

(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

My gripe is that people who commit acts of civil disobedience seem to have come to expect to be let off. It's almost as if they see civil disobedience as a right, and they are morally indignant (not to mention surprised and terrified) if they are arrested.

When I was in college at MIT, I attended a meeting in which activists who were concerned about the Seabrook nuclear plant trained others on how to protest. (I think I was there as a reporter covering the event, by the way. I wasn't especially political back then.) Among the things they explained was how to behave if people wanted to be arrested. That wasn't the main thrust of the protest, it was like an extra credit aspect they said some might want to do. In fact, it was pretty carefully explained that not everyone should do this, that only people who really understood the consequences of being arrested and were willing to pay that price should do. They weren't planning anything violent, but they did think it was a legitimate choice to be more-than-average obstructionist if the person was willing to pay that price of being arrested and having a mark on their record. In fact, it was the price they would pay that made the action noteworthy.

Refusing to move when instructed by the police was not seriously going to keep the nuclear plant from being built. But their willingness to spend time in jail peacefully might get them time on the news, since it would arouse sympathy in the population, who might think it awful they'd had to make such a sacrifice just to be heard. But once such a penalty is removed, or routinely waived, why is it be noteworthy? Sacrifice is only sacrifice if you lose something, and if you're assured you won't, you're not making one.

Disobedience of the Not-So-Civil Kind

I want to turn now to another issue that I will ultimately tie in with the above, and that's the issue of ticking time bombs. And no, in case you're worried, I am not going to suggest that these are some good form of civil disobedience. But the discussion of their existence at all will set up something else that I want to talk about.

As you probably know, the ticking time bomb scenario involves the notion that there will be imminent harm to many people very soon, that you are the one who must interrogate a suspect, and that everyone is depending on you to avert a catastrophe. “What would you do to get the needed information?”

And, indeed, on Open Salon, DJohn posted such a question just the other day in a thread to which I responded. I've lifted my response to him into this post here (with very light editing) to make sure my thoughts on the matter didn't get lost in the shuffle.

The fallacy here is that you think this problem is unique to torture. It is not. Consider any law we have. There are laws against driving fast on highways, against breaking into buildings, and against killing people. We know, for example, that there are sometimes extraordinary reasons why good decent people need to drive beyond the speed limit, break into buildings, and even kill other people. And we do not say, therefore, that there must not be laws against driving beyond the speed limit, against breaking into buildings, and against killing one another. Rather, we expect brave souls to do in extraordinary times what needs to be done, consequences be damned. In some cases, we will exonerate them afterward for breaking a rule because we agree that circumstances warranted it. In some cases, we will not, and we will hold them accountable and they will console themselves knowing that they sacrificed themselves for something they believed was more important.

The situation of national security is no different. Were there really a case where millions could die and there was a chance torture might work, I expect someone would try the torture. If it worked, I imagine he'd be found a hero and forgiven. If it failed, I imagine he'd be court-martialed for his foolish notion. That's not much reassurance, but it ought not be. That's what it is to be illegal, to say that the risk of doing the thing is entirely to be engaged at a personal level. It's what we heard every week in Mission Impossible growing up: Should you or any of the IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge.

It's an uncomfortable truth but an honest one. It doesn't just give a wink to someone saying “it's ok, we know you'll need to do this and we'll forgive you later” it says “if you think this is your only option, you'd damn well have examined every other one and it better really be because this is not one we'll forgive lightly.” For things that are truly (rather than merely rhetorically) one's only option, who asks for permission?

Anyone who tortures should never do it as a matter of process. He should do it as a last resort knowing that he is potentially sacrificing his life or freedom. That's a nice high bar that I'm comfortable won't get misused. Anything less, I'm not so sure.

Kent Pitman
April 19, 2009 01:22 AM

Checks and Balances

The traditional argument goes that “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Fair enough. That's a theory that goes quite a ways back in history, well before its recent formulation in words. But it was always about “above board” (pardon the unfortunate waterboarding pun) action. The problem isn't that the Bush administration wanted to change the policy, the policy is that they did so without informing the public and without subjecting themselves to trial. Having seen the need to do it, they should have done what they needed to and then marched straight to court demanding a trial. In the worst case, they should have told the public what they were doing so that the public could decide.

The claim by Bush echoed claims made by Nixon, who in turn quoted Lincoln when he was interviewed by David Frost: “Actions which otherwise would be unconstitutional, could become lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the Constitution and the Nation.” I don't even propose to debate that here; it might well be right. Let's assume it is. The critical difference between Lincoln and Nixon on this point is that Lincoln's actions were public and subject to scrutiny by the electorate. Nixon was secretive, and so was Bush.

Secrecy matters a great deal because the Constitutional foundation of allowing the Executive this much power is not that we like trusting the Executive with this much power, but rather we understand that some decisions must be made quickly, before the populace or perhaps even Congress could offer advice. And some decisions must be made coherently to avert the effect of Congress tearing our nation limb from limb by each Congressperson going in a different direction. A President must know when he acts on his own that he is still doing so at some risk of being judged harshly, and if he does it in secret, that risk is averted. The essential check on Presidential power is the option to impeach or at least not to re-elect. And even for those who will not be re-elected, we have the option to publicly discuss with new candidates for the office whether they subscribe to such doctrine. We are robbed of all of that when such actions are taken in secret, and we end up making decisions about the Presidency without critical information that would allow us to make good decisions.


And so I'll close with the point I opened with, that there is a relationship between civil disobedience as it has become and this kind of not-so-civil disobedience. In both cases, the actions have become so comfortable that the high bar of sacrifice has been removed. With that bar removed, the acts in question are too easy to do and too hard to later judge. We must repair that.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published April 25, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, civil disobedience, unjust law, conscientious objector, CO, war, ticking time bomb scenario, torture, ticking, time bomb, 24, abraham lincoln, lincoln, nixon, frost, frost/nixon, bush, george bush, george w bush, cheney, dick cheney, checks and balances, democratic rule, we the people, democracy, election, re-election, informed electorate, impeach, impeachment, recourse

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