To use Occam's razor one must first tell the beard from the throat

Let the trains run on time

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Response to Garrison Keillor’s “Let war crimes be bygones” on Salon. Gary Kamiya gets it right.

I’m sure someone already noticed this. The title and subtitle of this article admit of war crimes, then call for them to be left unpunished, and finally call for good train service. With no sense of irony, Keillor says, forget about the Nuremberg principles, make the trains run on time. I thought we’ve learned this lesson a couple of generations ago.

Dear author,

I understand the difficult choice that U.S. citizens face at this point in history. As a U.S. resident, someone who worked hard to get his Green Card, I feel a part of this story, though I was lucky to be away from the U.S. during most of the Bush era. The thing is, you see, that this debate does not only concern U.S. citizens and residents now. It concerns the entire world, today and tomorrow.

I hail from a difficult part of the world. Back where I come from, in what used to be called Yugoslavia, we had a pretty ugly war about 15 years ago. I hope people here remember it. While the U.S. can be faulted for a number of things in how it handled the Yugoslav wars, its policy was, largely, consistent about one thing. It called for war criminals to be brought to justice.

The reason for this is simple: war crimes are not only a matter for the perpetrators. Perpetrators always see their actions in a rosy light, through some kind of a semi-rationalization, usually based on national security. The reason they’re “perpetrators”, though, is because their actions affect other human beings. And, at least in the world I was brought up in, it has been recognized that there are standards to what one may do to human beings during wartime, national security or not.

Human nature is tricky. Look up Stanley Milgram. People have a hard time turning down authority. A majority, actually, will kill a human being when directed by a legitimate-seeming authority figure. This is why, in order for the world made of nation states to be a bearable place, there are limits on what national authority figures may order.

What this means is that a war crime is, well, a crime, no matter what the Dear Leader or the President or the Legal Counsel says. If they issue a criminal order, whoever is carrying it out has a right and a duty to disobey. As Milgram found, this is usually difficult to do. The order-executor is usually a patriot, and the order-giver speaks for the state. Once the war crime is committed, then, the criminal is the entire gosh-darned sovereign country.

This creates bad blood. In three ways, at least.

First, war crimes have victims, and they have friends and families. And if the war-crime-order-giver goes scot-free, they often get to hold a grudge against the entire country. So they’re more motivated to fly airplanes into buildings and the works. Perhaps more ominously, there are other wannabe war-crime-order-givers elsewhere in the world. And they love when another of their kind gets off for free. Gives ’em courage to do let their war criminal side come out of the closet. And also, there are wannabe war criminals in the same country, too. In the future.

So the law says, find the individuals. There are standards to what a country can do to human beings, and those individuals who order those standards to be broken, by law, do not speak for their country. Dictators, elected officials or professionals, they forfeit the trust of their people. They become common crooks.

This does, I agree, make it kinda difficult for everyone involved. In a democratic country, a lot of citizens trust the officials. Many people do not mind what is being done, or, perhaps, find it regrettable but necessary. But what they need to do — what, as was recognized after World War II, is their responsibility, to their children, to the survivors, and to everybody else in the world — is to realize what has been done in their name, prosecute it, accept it, regret it, and allow themselves to mourn it.

This is what the U.S. insisted we do in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro. Many resisted. Victor’s justice, some complained. It threatened to tear our countries apart, others said. Some of the countries are in a bad way still. But we’ve faced a lot of what happened, and it makes us sleep better at night.

So yes, facing war crimes is not for the fainthearted. For a rule-of-thumb on what it involves, check out the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. Conservatives seem to be mostly in Denial or Anger. You’re actually pretty well off, you got all the way to Bargaining. You’re in prestigious company: Prez Obama is at the same stage, too.

But please, have courage to move forward. If you and other well-meaning US-Americans do not, and the crooks get off to a comfy retirement, what we saw in the near past can very easily turn out to be just a prelude. If you chicken out now, you’ll open the door to a future that may, I’m afraid, make us reminisce fondly of Bush and Cheney.

I’ll grant you, though, the trains will run on time.


Written by miranche

1 May 2009 at 21:20

Posted in Contentious, Current

One Response

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    Kara Noble

    19 August 2013 at 17:36

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