12.22.2010

On Julian Assange (and Wikileaks)

So, I've had some time to digest the Cablegate scandal. There's certainly a lot to mull over. I don't condemn or applaud Assange. I like his dry sense of humor and agree with some of his politics, but I also think he's immature and misguided. I don't pretend to know whether or not he actually committed violent sexual attacks on two Swedish women but they deserve retribution.

The conclusion that I've come to is that discussions about the morality and legitimacy of Julian Assange's actions are unproductive and irrelevant. Whether you love him or hate him - it's a matter for the courts to decide if he's due punishment. He should face justice, but there is a difference between justice and politically motivated persecution.

What is more important to me is the substance of the information released and the manner in which our government has responded. Many people on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum have long feared the rise of authoritarianism and see it manifested in our own government. Both the right and the left will point to different evidence and blame the other side, of course.

Aaron Brady said it best (again) in his blog:
...if all we do is look at Assange himself — which is what most of the media wants to do — we fall into the trap they‘ve set for us. If we moralize about Wikileaks and Julian Assange exclusively, we’re not doing our moral duties as citizens, and as human beings. Our job is to watch people with power and try to ensure that people with power don’t misuse it. Part of that is scrutinizing powerful men [like Assange] who have the opportunity to commit rape and be forgiven for it by people who are in solidarity with their politics. But a very different — and enormous — part of being good citizens, in this case, is observing that the United States government acts like a giant, amoral, and secretive machine for more deeply establishing economic and political privilege worldwide, and that keeping secrets from us — almost exactly as Julian Assange wrote, years ago — is the way they go about doing it. Whether or not he’s a rapist, and whether or not Wikileaks has been acting like responsible journalists or irresponsible anarchists, has very little to do with the fact that he was right, at least, about that.
The manner in which our own government and media is responding to Assange is scary enough - never mind all the dirty little secrets revealed by Wikileaks. First Sarah Palin accuses Assange of "treason" and argues we should pursue him "with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Even "democrat" Joe Lieberman calls for his extradition from the U.K and Vice President Biden labels Julian Assange as a terrorist - a label that has landed numerous individuals into prison without trial.

We have laws for a reason. Someone breaks the law, we use the law to deal justice instead of appealing to our emotions and knee-jerk reactions. Since when is it acceptable to piss all over the Bill of Rights and deal out death to people without due process?

Michael Lind talks about the lack of the rule of law in America at Salon.com:
In each of the cases I have mentioned, the defenders of lawlessness on the part of individuals or the nation as a whole can make a case for an exception to the rule that laws ought to be obeyed until they are changed. Yes, the defenders of Julian Assange might say, it is wrong to declassify government documents -- but WikiLeaks lets the public know more about decision-making in American foreign policy, and that's a good thing. ... Yes, say the conservatives and libertarians, tax avoidance in general might be a bad thing -- but, on the other hand, the U.S. corporate income tax is too high. Yes, say the foreign policymakers of both parties, we disapprove in principle of torture and extrajudicial murder -- but don't you want us to prevent another 9/11? 
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that if too many good reasons are found to justify refusals to obey or enforce too many laws, respect for the system of laws as a whole will erode. In "A Man for All Seasons," the playwright Robert Bolt made this observation through the character of Sir Thomas More. The British chancellor replies to a character who is shocked that More would allow even the devil the benefit of the rule of law:
"What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"
Those of you who hate Julian Assange and want to see him punished - have patience. If he's done something wrong, believe me, our courts will punish him. That's what they do, it's their business - not yours (unless you're asked to be on the jury.) As Brady mentioned above, you have another and larger duty as a citizen.

So what do the cables actually reveal?

- For one we find out that the British government designated a territory in their Indian ocean colonies a “marine protected area” simply to prevent the people they forcibly removed from it decades ago (to allow the US to build a military base there) from pursuing their claim for a right of return.

- Our government is leading a secret war in Yemen where the ratio of combatants to innocents killed is 1 to 50.

- The British and US government consistently cited torture violations (specifically "Saddam's torture chambers") as a justification for the war in Iraq, yet the same practices - as revealed by the leaked diplomatic cables - continues and our government has consciously chosen to ignore it.

- The cables also provide evidence of numerous examples of large numbers of innocent casualties in Afghanistan (a problem in and of itself) but worse: our own government actively lies to cover it up to save face.

- An American company, Dyncorp, helped pimp out little boys to Afghani cops and American ambassadors were asked to pressure the media to cover it up - instead as an alternative the assistant Ambassador suggested letting it "blow over" as approaching the media would just "make it worse."

Other headlines include: Iraq security firms operate 'mafia' to inflate prices; Shell runs the Nigerian government; BP stole $10bn worth oil from Azerbaijan (and our government doesn't care); The UK stopped Russia from tracking the killers of Alexander Litvinenko...

... oh and Eric Clapton is popular in North Korea. Huh.

That's just scratching the surface of what's been released, and only 1/250th of the documents have been released so far. So what are you going to do about it? Will you lament over the fact that Julian Assange is under house arrest in the UK instead of burning at the stake? Or will you try to fix our foreign policy and how it operates? I'll remind you that while the former is your prerogative, the latter is your civic duty.

2 Intelligent Comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Mike D has read this in its entirety and is unable to post an intellectual response due to a lack of both cohesive thought process and analytical reasoning skills. I can state however, that it is impossible for any system as large as the US government to have one set of rules and guidelines that can be followed without being sidestepped while maintaining "peace" (or more accurately, a lack of chaos). First, it is a system governed by people and people are flawed. Second the rules and regulations regarding what is "right", what is "just" and what is "fair" are outdated. I do not believe it is possible to update laws fast enough to keep up with the changing world we live in. For these two, simple reasons I cannot fault the actions or statements revealed in the cables but I do find fault and irresponsibility in releasing them.

Jeremy Corbally-Hammond said...

You're allowed to find fault and irresponsibility in releasing the cables. I'm not arguing one way or another in regards to that. Though, I would say the fallible nature of human manufactured "rules and guidelines" that you accurately describe could be used to justify vigilantes just as well as the actions by our foreign policy in the name of flexibility. The logic doesn't differentiate between the two.

I'm not an absolutist either and not entirely opposed to bending the rules for the sake of "justice," "fairness," and what's "right" - because ultimately, that's what laws are made for and if they stop working, we change them. But if you think sidestepping the rules and guidelines as manifested in the above examples is acceptable ... well I guess that's another argument.

It baffles me when people know about and condone manipulative, authoritarian and oppressive behavior thinking it's necessary to maintain our way of life and disregard it as just "the way things are."

While rules regarding what is just and fair are indeed outdated - our sense of fairness and justice are less so (and would have to be to maintain your argument.) The flaws of human beings were aptly pointed out. But are the humans who secretly operate our foreign policy pure harbingers of justice, immune to the flaws of human nature and scrutiny?

In the context of the examples in my blog post, I will ask everyone who knowingly condones our foreign policy:

- What is fair about forcibly moving thousands of innocent people from their land to expand our own?

- What is just about killing innocent people there to protect innocent people here? And hiding it so no one has the opportunity to challenge the decision?

- What is right about our government condemning and destroying another for employing a means of oppression while using all the while using those same methods?

- How is it not childish to hide mistakes to avoid scrutiny?

- What justice is maintained by protecting molesters of children?

- And what gives Kim Jong-chol, son of the N. Korean dictator the right to listen to our music?! Seriously! The nerve! Doesn't he have Korean rock to load is kPod with?

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