One of the most exhalted and ubiquitous unchallenged truths of our time – is the pedestal occupying place of civilian “innocents.” The honest men and women who go about their lives doing who knows what with them until they are violently killed or maimed by an unserious, crazy person who hates their freedoms. It’s criminal. It’s infuriating. It’s accurate?
To be incontrovertibly clear I do not, have not, and never will condone terrorism.
Still, it occurred to me, in the context of recent reading, that one of the things we pride ourselves on is our civilian control of our armed forces. Civilian control of our defense spending might be a little lacking but the armed forces of the United States act only at the behest of the American people through the direction of their chosen representatives in Congress and the Executive branch. So if one has a problem – either legitimate or illegitimate – with the actions and strategies of the United States military or other aspects of American foreign policy, does that not by extension implicate all of us?
Where is the line between not innocent (or somewhat complicit) and innocent sovereignty?
Does torture at Abu Ghraib indict us all or just the people who did the actions? Who exactly is responsible for indefinite detention in Cuba or drone strikes in Pakistan? Is it the front line people implementing the policy? The people who drafted and approved of the policy in Washington? Or is it the people who sent the policymakers to Washington to begin with? Or perhaps the people who continue to send them there?
In passing the other day, I caught a minute of O’Reilly Factor, where the Factor himself nonchalantly admitted that Iraq was probably a mistake. However, if we were to be more seriously introspective about it, or perhaps inclined to prevent similar mistakes in the future, we have to ask whom among us is responsible? Surely the person most responsible is President George W. Bush but what about his national security team? Are the people who elected President Bush responsible, or only the ones who voted for his reelection? Then again, I guess, he would not have been able to use force against Iraq had it not been explicitly authorized by Congress. That vote was more enabling than the electors of West Virginia, so shouldn’t a few Senators and Representatives bear a considerable amount of blame and responsibility? Or perhaps by extension their constituents?
I think these questions have a timely relevance to them with respect to the War on Terror but the Ambiguous Action Against Libya has added a new dimension. President Obama bypassed Congress in authorizing the use of force against another nation and looks poised to do so in authorizing “boots on the ground” covert operations in that country. Do his actions absolve the rest of us from the ire of maimed Libyans or survivors’ families? Does our inaction or Congress’ inaction amount to tacit support for which we hold some responsibility?
What about the voters? On one hand it seems prima facie ridiculous to say that someone who voted for President Obama because he was the anti-war candidate bears some small measure of responsibility (more maybe if they voted in swing state) for his administration’s drone attacks in Pakistan or Yemen. Along those lines voters get to hold their leaders accountable at regular but lengthy intervals, so does Congress’ proximity to executive action make them more complicit?
On the other hand it seems pretty clear that the electorate’s division over issues of national security and commiserate inability to reign in an executive branch disposed to engaging in deadly military actions across the world is chiefly responsible for abetting the continuation of such military actions.. Or put another way, if our elected officials are engaged in wanton permawarfare and we keep electing them at some point, don’t we own that?
I don’t think complicity or responsibility for American foreign policy and its results makes one an acceptable target for extra-legal retribution. However, it’s not at all clear, from the point of the view of someone whose property or family are now “collateral damage,” where exactly the buck stops.
I think it’s instructive to look at how we view and treat foreign countries. When we condemn or otherwise discuss human rights abuses in Cuba, we don’t attack or malign or entreat the Cuban people, we place the blame, responsibility, and target on the Castros, who rule Cuba. With China, we do the same with the Chinese politburo. Though it’s American principle that the people are ultimately sovereign, we make a habit of targeting our appeals, sanctions, and opprobrium at the powerful, the ones recognized as sovereign in the world of RealPolitik.
There are few contrasts as curious as the way in which we as individuals in our democracy celebrate our power as individuals and our virtuous self-rule and the blithe way in which we demonstrate that power in the voting booth while ducking responsibility for he results. Representative democracy is a young and indeed laudable form of government but we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that it brings power without responsibility or accountability.