Sunday, May 15, 2011

Aging hippies in vestments

“Tom” Wright has written an open letter which is making the rounds of the Internet. Oddly enough, it seems to have vanished from the originating site.

Before I discuss his analogous illustrations, let’s begin with what actually went down. From what I’ve heard and read, as well as considering what’s innately plausible, US forces staged a unilateral strike on UBL’s safe house. We didn’t notify the Pakistani authorities in advance because elements within the Pakistani gov’t collaborate with the jihadis, and if we tipped them off, they’d turn around and tip off UBL. Indeed, given the fact that Pakistan is a police state, as well as the location of UBL’s conspicuous safe house in a populous military town, it seems highly probable that elements within the Pakistani gov’t were consciously harboring UBL.

Now, I have no independent knowledge of what transpired. And I don’t believe everything I’m told. However, what I’ve summarized is consistent with a thoroughly cynical interpretation of both the Pakistani gov’t and the Obama administration. Therefore, I don’t say this because I trust the “official” story.

I also think there were too many different players in the operation, and the operation itself was too high-profile, for conspiracy theories to hold water.

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.
But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

Washington would be furious because this would be a monumental embarrassment to the party in power. That, however, is not a morally salient consideration. The real question is whether Washington would have a right to be furious. So Wright’s comparison begs the question.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?

i) To the contrary, if the US were harboring IRA leaders who took refuge in the here after orchestrating a bombing raid in London, if our gov’t was uncooperative in apprehending and extraditing the culprits, if–indeed–elements of the US gov’t were in cahoots with the terrorists, then I, as an American, would support the Brits in their extrajudicial action.

Westminster wouldn’t be to blame. Rather, Washington would be to blame for turning a blind eye to the IRA hideout.

ii) One doesn’t need a special right to do what’s right.

iii) It doesn’t matter “who says” as long as the speaker is correct.

Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.

I think vigilantism is justified in that scenario. The rule of law is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The process is only as good as the end-product.

Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.

Actually, I don’t agree with Obama’s action. Mind you, I have no moral compunction about our killing UBL. He merited the death penalty a thousandfold. Pity we could only kill him once. But that’s what hell is for.

That said, I think we should have taken him alive to squeeze him for information before we pulled the trigger. Interrogate him, then subject him to summary execution.

I also condemn the Obama administration for hounding the CIA agents who extracted the very information which the Obama administration relied on to retrace the whereabouts of UBL.

Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort.

Once again, Wright is begging the question. Vigilante justice is not intrinsically evil. Vigilante justice carries the risk of responding to crime run amok with vigilantism run amok. But gov’t is predicated on the right of self-defense. The right of self-defense is logically prior to gov’t. Self-defense is the principle; at best, gov’t is just a process to facilitate that underlying principle. Gov't doesn't supersede the right of self-defense.

In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right.

Of course, we weren’t aiming all those bullets at UBL. One can debate the merits of our strategic objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s both ignorant and naïve to imagine that everything we’ve done there was an elaborate manhunt to get UBL.

What’s more, such actions invite retaliation.

i) Whenever you fight back, there’s the risk of retaliation. So what? Is Wright a pacifist?

While there’s a risk of retaliation if you fight back, the alternative is unconditional surrender, which is a guarantee that the worst-case scenario will befall you.

ii) BTW, from what I’ve read (and I’m no expert), England, despite pervasive domestic surveillance (e.g. security cameras everywhere), is overrun by crime. England could probably benefit from letting Harry Callahan or Paul Kersey go off-leash for a few years to get the situation back under control.

They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.

But Wright doesn’t care about justice. He substitutes procedural formalities for just retribution.

Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman.

I didn’t know that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were undercover operations. Were we using undercover bombs and battalions? Special opts has been part of it, but hardly the whole of it.

The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us?

The new superpowers won’t be constrained by UN resolutions or international protocols, that’s for sure.

And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth…

Actually, he’s “fully and finally revealed” as the eschatological warrior king in Rev 6 & 19.

…who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

And we should also love our neighbor. Allowing jihadis to murder our neighbors with impunity isn’t very loving to our neighbors.

This is the sort of thing that brings the church into disrepute. Impotent, effeminate, ineffectual church leaders who respond to a mortal threat with daisies and love beads.

The message this sends to the world is that the church is out of touch with main street. Don’t look to the church for serious moral guidance. Wright is just an aging hippie.   


  1. Hey, if British agents want to take down IRA goons hiding in Boston's Irish pub cellars, I'm fine with it.

    And would the US be justified in busting heads responsible for the 1967 USS Liberty attack?

  2. Randall van der Sterren said:

    And would the US be justified in busting heads responsible for the 1967 USS Liberty attack?

    For one thing, doesn't this assume the Israelis intentionally calculated the attack? Or at least it wasn't a veritable mistake? But I thought this was the very point of contention?

    Also, the Wiki article notes Israel has compensated for the incident in some way. I'm not suggesting this necessarily does, in fact, compensate for the incident. But it would seem to be more meaningful than what the jihadis and at least as far as I'm aware what the IRA have ever done.

  3. For what it's worth at this point, I found Wright's original article here.

  4. For a very good understanding of Pakistan and South East Asia read anything by the journalist Ahmed Rashid.

  5. The sailors on the USS Liberty have never felt "compentsated" for the hell they went through. The government told them to shut up for years, but finally the trth is coming out.