Thursday, October 19, 2006

Crimes and Blunders

Not every crime is done out of evil motives.

Some people would go so far as to say that nothing, really, is done out of evil motives: that people always act out of an idea of the good, and sometimes they're simply wrong about what that entails. I myself wouldn't go so far as to say this, but it was a view held by, among many others, Plato, so if you think this you're in good company.

Nevertheless, I do think it's pretty indisputable that not every crime is done out of malevolence. Indeed, some crimes are pretty straightforwardly benevolent in motive; far more are of mixed motive, and/or a case in which the criminal is fooling themself as to the likely effects of their actions.

(I should perhaps interject that I am not a lawyer; that my use of the word "crime" here is meant to have more moral than legal force. It may be the case that some crimes -- some genuinely wicked acts -- are not punishable under any applicable law; but I think that the word crime is nevertheless not only still justified but is, in fact, still important. In any event, it is that sense -- a moral crime, with the associated implication that such actions should be prosecuted if possible (but that it won't always be) -- that I am using the word here.)

Perhaps some examples are in order.

I think it's quite possible, for example, that the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo didn't have any particular malevolent intent: that, in fact, they sincerely believed that they were under attack, that they thought they saw a gun, and that they fired -- yes, even 41 times -- under a genuine fear for their safety. But the point is that a genuine fear is not necessarily a legitimate fear. Theirs was a fear that was, presumably, born out of racist beliefs -- again, possibly not explicitly racist beliefs: they did not set out to lynch someone -- but the sort of beliefs that can color ones perceptions and make one see a gun where there is only a wallet. Beliefs per se are not criminal of course: but when acted upon, they can become so. Some fears are illegitimate. And even apart from the fear's source, while fear for one's safety is a legitimate motive for action, it's not a legitimate motive for any possible action. Act upon genuine fear wrongly, and you've committed a crime.

And the same goes for a desire to improve the world. The person who decides to kill a mafia don may have completely laudable motives: the don is running a criminal enterprise, and has certainly murdered people in the past; the neighborhood will be much better out from under their spell. But to shoot the don in the back is still murder. Perhaps, in some circumstances, it's justifiable homicide: but those circumstances are exceptional, not normal. And if one misses the don, and hits the don's child -- or if one hits them both -- then one has murdered a child: and no amount of I-went-in-this-with-the-best-of-intentions talk will alter that one iota, because one oughtn't to have been shooting in the first place. Well meaning or not, it was not a legitimate act.

And in addition to fear and desire to improve the world, many other good motives can lead to crimes to. And that's not even to get into the large number of motives which aren't quite good or evil, but are mixed. Or the large number of cases where crimes are committed by carelessness: if you get drunk and drive home, you may have committed only a minor crime, one that will never be discovered and will have no lasting consequences -- but you also might be the person responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. It's not entirely up to you, in the sense that you can do little to avoid it -- save not to drink and drive in the first place: which is where the real responsibility lies. (This example -- indeed, many of these examples -- are instances of the phenomenon of "moral luck": that our actions can become moral or immoral -- and genuinely moral or immoral, in the sense that we will have sinned -- depending on how our luck runs. But that's a whole topic in and of itself.)

The point of all this is that these are not simply mistakes. It's not enough to say that you meant well, that you had good intentions, that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, that it really looked liked a gun not a wallet, that you really thought that the Don was alone and that he was unquestionably a wicked man, that you just had a lot of beer it's not like you aimed a riffle for chrissakes. It won't do because these weren't mistakes, or weren't just mistakes: these are crimes. People are dead. And we are responsible.

I bring this up, of course, because people are dead -- approximately 655,000 people, although it is one small part of the circumstances of our crimes that we will never know precisely how many -- indeed, our knowledge is so poor that even the best available studies have an error range of hundreds of thousands of people.

But it doesn't matter. Because people are dead. And we are responsible.

And it was a crime.

Not a mistake; not a poor policy decision; not a bad idea in retrospect but how could we have known really. A crime.

To reverse the famous saying of Talleyrand: it was worse than a blunder; it was a crime.

A crime.

Because we didn't have to do it.

We were not under attack, or under any imminent threat -- and if not all of us knew it, than all of us should have known it: our perceptions were distorted by anger and fear and misplaced trust and all sorts of things that, while not crimes in and of themselves, become crimes when you act on them in a certain way. If we had been attacked, really attacked by the Iraqis, it would be different. (Which is why Afghanistan, however smegged-up things are becoming there too, is different.) But we weren't. Nor were armies looming on our boarders, shouting that they would throw us into the sea, as in Israel in 1967. What we had were grainy photos of trailers and lies about Africa. So it was a crime.

A crime, because it doesn't matter that we, or some of us, thought that we would make the world a better place, thought that the person we were after was a horrid criminal who had killed many people in the past (and Saddam unquestionably was that), thought that it would spread democracy like a rosy-fingered dawn: it doesn't matter. Because we attacked someone without being attacked, and so can't make the excuse that our aim was poor. If a massacre or genocide had been ongoing, it would have been different. Intervention in a specific, ongoing massacre may be justified -- and may simply turn out to have been a blunder if it goes badly, because we would have been acting in a legitimate, moral way. But that wasn't the case here. Saddam had killed many people; Saddam was a vicious tyrant; but there was not ongoing killings we intervening to stop. We were simply out to make the world a better place (or some people thought so, and others have adopted this as the ex post facto justification). And we missed, and we hit 655,000 other people.

For which there are no excuses.

And all of this is apart from any of the less laudable motives that may have been involved -- as some surely were, since there were many players and many actors and many calculations and many motives, and if one person's motives are so often impure, how impure will the motives of an entire government -- an entire ruling class -- an entire country -- be? We may not know all those motives until after the archives are opened, the documents examined and the causation carefully charted out; even then it is sure to be a horribly complex story; but in many ways it doesn't matter. The car has crashed; the people are dead; what drove us to drink is neither here nor there.

That we blundered in what we did is all the worse, since it made it worse; but it was not simply a blunder. It was not simply a mistake. It was not that we all thought so and who could have known.

It was a crime.

It was our crime. All of us. As Billmon so eloquently wrote yesterday (in response to Riverbend's anguished re-entry into blogging), none of us -- even those who opposed the war -- did enough. Because it happened. And people are dead. Responsibility is not a zero-sum game; it is our country that has done this deed. So we are guilty. All of us.

But -- as much as it may depart from Billmon's wisdom* -- I can't help but say that we are not all equally guilty.

Those who supported the war are more guilty than those who opposed it.

Those who wrote or marched to support the war are more guilty than those who supported it silently.

Those who created a climate of opinion where this scheme took hold are more guilty than those who spoke in its favor.

Those who abetted the action, by voting for war resolutions or attacking those who did not, are more guilty than those who simply made the idea seem good.

And those who decided on the war are the guiltiest of all.

This should not make us feel better. The blood of hundreds of thousands of dead will stain enough hands that none of us can feel entirely clean. But it should make each of us feel worse, according to the measure that they supported, or failed to hinder, this crime.

And perhaps -- maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe -- we can learn from our mistakes. I don't really think so: this after all was precisely the war that we should have avoided by learning from the mistakes from Vietnam, the previous crime. Of course there are differences: this is not a game, where we will see precisely the same patterns again. But it should have been clear enough. To many of us, it was clear enough.

But we didn't stop it. Maybe we couldn't have. I don't know. All I know is that, whether we could or not, we needed to.

Because people are dead. And we are responsible.

For that crime.

* (Peripheral) Update: As long as I'm linking to Billmon's piece, I should link to this very interesting reply by Amanda Marcotte which I just came across.

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