Tuesday, October 11, 2005

When Moral Authority Is Itself Amoral

Having mentioned James Yee twice before, it's worth doing a follow-up to note this issue (via Atrios) brought up over at Balkinazation. In his interview on Democracy Now!, Yee said an Army investigator approached his wife and showed her pictures of Capt. Yee with women he regularly worked with. The implication (and more than an implication) was that Capt. Yee was unfaithful to his wife while he was away in Cuba, that these women were lovers, not co-workers, and therefore she should tell the military what a bad person he was, the better to prosecute him. Apparently, this was not a singular legal or investigative strategy:

The Rumsfeld Pentagon has developed destruction of the character of those who get in its way to an art form. Those viewed as troublesome become the target of a special investigation. Wiretaps are applied to their telephones and their emails are read. An evidentiary case is built and humiliating leaks to the press occur.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask: when the persons in question are two-, three- and four-star generals, at what level must this be authorized? In fact, the targets have included two-, three- and four-star generals, and the authority or impetus for such action has almost certainly come from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The charges brought have tended to fall into two baskets: charges of petty dereliction and sexual misconduct. In the former case, we have seen charges that officers kept classified documents on their laptop computers – when the documents turned out not to be classified; and we have seen charges of petty errors and oversights in contract administration. (Conversely, serious cases of contract misadministration involving billions of dollars and Halliburton are resolved by persecuting the whistleblower.) But the favored technique clearly lies in bringing charges of improper sexual conduct, invariably involving consensual sexual relations.
The support for this argument is at the linked blog.

It seems to mild to note that power tends to corrupt; or that there is an ambiguity in all human virtue (does anyone doubt Donald Rumsfeld considers himself a "good person"?) . This needs a stronger answer, a more complex one. Perhaps we can start with the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:

We do, to be sure, face a problem which Lincoln did not face. We cannot say, "Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God." We are dealing with a conflict between contending forces which have no common presuppositions. But even in this situation it is very dangerous to define the struggle as one between a God-fearing and a godless civilization. The communists are dangerous not because they are godless but because they have a god (the historical dialectic) who, or which, sanctifies their aspiration and their power as identical with the ultimate purposes of life. We on the other, as all "God-fearing" men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. Even the most "Christian" civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be known only where there is some awareness of a
contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations.

There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinate to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves.

Strangely enough, none of the insights derived from this faith are finally contradictory to our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it. For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.

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