Monday, October 25, 2010

Choosing Laws To Obey

I am going to start with some confession. Good for the soul and all that. I have broken the law. I'll start small. Speed limit signs are suggestions more than real legal statements. After all, getting to work on time, even a tad early, is far more important than obeying laws that no one bothers with anyway, am I right?

I have smoked marijuana. Quite a few times. Hardly earth-shattering, I know. I also used hashish once - exciting, in a hallucinatory, what-the-hell's-happening-to-me kind of way. Cocaine. I came of age in the 1980's, so come on.

I haven't committed any serious crimes. I've not stolen, raped, murdered. Because of the presence of blue laws in most jurisdictions, I am guilty of misdemeanors in New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. I'll leave it at that, thank you very much.

I drank alcoholic beverages before I was of legal age (a reality made more complicated by the fact that the State of New York changed its drinking age without grandfathering folks in; it was nineteen until the year I was nineteen when they raised it to 21; I could legally drink for 53 weeks, then it was a no-no for 51). I have, on a couple occasions, got behind the wheel worse for the ravages of booze, perhaps illegal acts I am least proud of, and with the most potential for really bad results.

Here's the thing. We're a nation of law breakers. For most of us, there are laws we acknowledge, mostly, by nodding in their direction as we pass them by. Usually this kind of law breaking is harmless, or only marginally or potentially harmful. Other times, though, it becomes a bit more tricky to justify what we are doing. Yet, justify it we do, because we human beings are excellent at arguing for our own righteousness, for the expedience of illegality as a passing contingency in the face of some other good.

The Civil Rights movement had the Constitution on its side, but it also thought it perfectly acceptable to break the law to pursue the "higher goal" of full social and political integration for African-Americans. While it is true they were left with few options, and it is more than arguable that this is the exception that proves the counter-point I am trying to make here, the basic Robin Hood approach of making heroes out of law-breakers, and justifying our lawlessness in the pursuit of some higher goal or principle or even "higher law" was set firmly in the minds of the nation.

Whether it was young kids burning their draft cards, themselves, or running to Canada to avoid military service in Vietnam; environmentalists who chain themselves to trees or (worse) spike them to prevent logging; the Reagan White House setting up an entire network to undermine legal limits on support for Nicaraguan rebels (in which we heard Fawn Hall, appearing before the special committee because she took classified documents from the White House in her underpants, say that she felt she was obeying "higher law"); or the Bush White House hiring suck-ass lawyers willing to tell them they could do pretty much anything they wanted; all of this comes down to one thing - breaking the law can always be made expedient for one reason or another.

Over the weekend, the website Wikileaks dumped on the public almost half a million documents on the American involvement in Iraq, from the years 2003-2009. These documents were and are classified. They were obtained by Wikileaks illegally. One enlisted man is under arrest, presumably for being a funnel. More arrests are likely. As Glenn Greenwald notes, not only are there several legal investigations under way, there is a concerted PR campaign against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Quite apart from this tawdry bit of farce, however, the reality is that Greenwald supports law breaking like this.
Predictably, just as happened with Ellsberg, there is now a major, coordinated effort underway to smear WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, and to malign his mental health -- all as a means of distracting attention away from these highly disturbing revelations and to impede the ability of WikiLeaks to further expose government secrets and wrongdoing with its leaks. (italics added)
See, part of the problem here is we have run in to that stupid, fake moral quandary - is it sometimes necessary to break one law or even a whole bunch of laws to further some higher moral purpose? Ever since the Jesuits figured that the ends justify the means, the answer to this has always been the same. Sure. Why not? Never mind that a member of the US military violated sworn oaths to get these documents to Wikileaks. Never mind that these documents are pretty raw data, and the news organizations that obtained them really aren't capable of doing the heavy lifting to sort through them. Never mind that even a humble, low-traffic blogger such as yours truly saw fit to link to news articles drawn from this information, summarily declaring members of the US military and its civilian overseers were war criminals.

I recently had the privilege of seeing this whole thing from a different perspective. I was challenged by it. I ran a little thought-experiment. Would I, as an individual, take the offer of, say, $10 million, even if I knew (a) the money had been obtained illegally; and (b) no penalties would accrue to me for its use? I can honestly say the answer to that question is "No", for the expedient reason that I don't care all that much about money.

Yet, I and the rest of the world seem perfectly content to use ill-gotten gains in the form of illegally-obtained information to make judgments on all sorts of actions, even though we really aren't that much more informed than we were before. We've been shown snapshots, really, out of context or even focus, and persuaded that the questions we have about them aren't as important as the photos themselves. Except, of course, it is our duty to ask these kinds of questions.

I am not going to take down the two posts I have done so far on the Times articles. I am going to leave them up as an object lesson for myself. I am as capable as anyone else of justifying breaking laws, and am quite happy to reap the benefits of others' law-breaking, as long as I convince myself I have benefited from it. Thing is, I haven't really. I don't really "know" more than I did before. I don't even understand the events in question more clearly. Rather, I have participated in a world-wide conspiracy to undermine the laws of the US military out of the self-righteous pose of being against the war in Iraq. I am, really, no better than Fawn Hall, her old-school granny-panties filled with papers stamped "TOP SECRET". I laughed at her back in 1987. I deserve to be laughed at now, for my own short-sightedness and inflated sense of myself.

Virtual Tin Cup

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