The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Thu. May 27, 2004

Justice Loses Face

We’ve heard lot about “justice” in the past month and a half, and some promises have been made.

President Bush said that the murderers of the four contractors in Fallujah, and the people who flayed their bodies and hung them from a bridge, would be “brought to justice.” But the Marines ended their siege of the city, and Iraqis now patrol it. And no one has been “brought to justice” for that crime.

He also promised that Nick Berg’s killers would be “brought to justice.” They announced two arrests some days ago, with no details about them, and nothing more since. It would appear we’re no closer to “justice” in that case, either.

CPA officials said an Iraqi prosecutor had charged Muqtada al-Sadr with the murder of a Shi’ite cleric in front of one of the holy mosques in Najaf. He, too, would be “brought to justice,” as our previous rejections of his cease fire offers have demanded his surrender, and that his militia be disbanded. But today we hear of a cease fire that will accomplish neither of those things. Everyone will just go home.

Now … gaining relative peace and quiet in Fallujah and Najaf are indeed much needed accomplishments, especially for the Iraqi people. And at this point, that may be all that truly matters. But when our leadership makes strident claims about what we will do, and then backs away from them, we lose face. In the Arab world, that’s a big deal. We become the guy who talks big, but doesn’t back it up. And once you develop that reputation, your big talk gets ignored, because they know it is impotent.

And you should now know that when our leaders talk about perpetrators being “brought to justice,” that is an impotent platitude tossed off in the immediate aftermath of tragedy. One that will be quickly forgotten, in the name of an expedient solution.

Peanut Gallery

1  Joel wrote:

I take your point, but I wonder how you feel about “truth and reconciliation” commissions, like those in South Africa or Rwanda, that substitute Truth for Justice as the greatest (or at least safest) good with the least potential for further damage to a fragile society after a period of terrible conflict.

2  Klaatu wrote:

I confess, I do not get the vast amount of bits and blogs and gnashing of teeth over much of anything The W says. The W is not talking to you or me or anyone with more than half a dozen neurons to rub together. Look at the facts. I forget the number, but we already know how most of the states are going to vote. The election comes down to less than 10 percent of the voters in just a few states that cannot make up their minds between the lesser of two evils. When The W speaks, he is trying to talk to those very few people. If either of the big two candidates said the sky was blue, I would look outside. I can sum up everthing that needs to be said about anything The W and Kerry and all of the talking heads have to say during the next few months in two words.

Vote Libertarian.

If you want someone in office that has read and understands the whole constitution, not just the parts they like, vote libertarian.

A person cannot tell the truth or say what they think and get elected in this country. Why are we surprised when they lie while in office?

3  Matt McIrvin wrote:

You know what? Screw justice. I’ve had it up to here with justice.

By which I don’t mean enforcing the laws, or trying to give people a fair shake, or stopping evil mad people who are manifest threats. I’m all for that, to the extent that good can come of it. I mean justice as revenge thinly disguised; justice that makes people fret endlessly about what other people deserve, and draw up enemies lists; justice as the mad goddess who tells us that punishing the wicked is a positive good, rather than, at best, a means to other ends that are best defined as explicitly as possible.

Our own morbid fascination with justice is a large part of what got us all into the current mess. A psychotic variant of it seems to be a part of what drives terrorists to commit mass murder in the first place. And then, on our own side… Will we make things better in Iraq? Will we be safer? Maybe not, but, boy, will we punish Saddam Hussein, and everyone agrees that he richly deserves it. Torture prisoners? Sure, we’re getting them back for 9/11. Somehow.

And lately I’ve been reading all these great, incisive lefty rants about the administration’s foolery… which end in these sweeping, cathartic calls for mass punishment: war crimes trials for New York Times writers, DoD officials sent to the chair, public shaming and ostracism for warbloggers… and no particular acknowledgement that organized retribution on this scale just might lead to even more abuse in the unlikely event that it happens.

It’s not all morally equivalent, if that even means anything—I’m all done trying to calculate moral equivalencies. Some of these people arguably deserve it, and some don’t. But at heart it’s all the same damn thing, justice pursued even to the exclusion of doing any good whatsoever. And, as you said, much of the time the people supposedly executing justice are just using it as a front anyway. So the hell with it.

4  Reid wrote:

<yoda>Nerve I have struck, hmmmm?</yoda>

Joel: “I wonder how you feel about ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions, like those in South Africa or Rwanda, that substitute Truth for Justice as the greatest (or at least safest) good with the least potential for further damage to a fragile society after a period of terrible conflict.

Prof. Joel, why do you ask me such hard questions?

Justice is more elusive in some situations than others, no doubt. Truth commissions do provide a means for an official documentation, and some sense of closure for the victims (or their families). But I’m not sure it’s always an either/or proposition.

For example, I think Saddam should be tried for the crimes he committed against both the Marsh Arabs and the Shi’ites. But there are mass graves from those crimes containing tens of thousands of bodies. Tens of thousands of stories to be told, that can never be fully told in a war crimes trial. How much can it mean to a family to go before a panel and tell the tale of their lost loved one? I hope I never know, but I would guess it means a lot. Perhaps the Iraqi government will consider undertaking one once they’ve taken control. That’s a society needing a lot of closure, from decades of dysfunction.

Jan: “The W is not talking to you or me or anyone with more than half a dozen neurons to rub together [...] The election comes down to less than 10 percent of the voters in just a few states [...] When The W speaks, he is trying to talk to those very few people.

I know what you’re saying. But I don’t offer special or situational dispensation for political figures. And beyond these nifty fifty states, why, there’s a whole world out there with ears. Whomever George might think he’s talking to, his words carry wide. More on that below.

Matt: “You know what? Screw justice. I’ve had it up to here with justice [...] I mean justice as revenge thinly disguised; justice that makes people fret endlessly about what other people deserve, and draw up enemies lists;

I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been, especially given the title I used. My complaint is not that we didn’t “bring them to justice,” no matter how bloody the price. My complaint is the loose way in which our leaders speak in the immediate aftermath of some violent tragedy. As Jan says, they’re trying to speak to a constituency, and appear strong and resolute. And it’s not just Bush and that one phrase. First of all, Clinton used to say the same stuff under this kind of circumstance. But secondly, I’ve also heard a fair number of military leaders talking about Fallujah or Najaf, making bold statements of the formula “we’re going to do X, and then Y is going to happen.” But somehow we jump straight to “Z.”

There’s a fine line between appearing firm and resolute in the face of setback or tragedy, and letting your mouth write a check your ass later fails to cash. And if some swing voter in Iowa either doesn’t hear or notice that, millions of others do. And some of them will be encouraged to push and see what else we won’t do, despite our huffing and puffing.

But as I said, it’s currently relatively peaceful in Fallujah and Najaf, “and at this point, that may be all that truly matters.” Because “at this point,” it’s my opinion we’ve burned our own reputation bad enough that this is just another scorch mark on an already charred board, not a sudden shock to the Iraqi people. At this point, some peace and quiet in the ‘hoods in Iraq is probably the best we can hope for.

But I still heard what was said; and I can still call ‘em on it.

5  Matt McIrvin wrote:

Actually, I wasn’t objecting to anything in particular that you said—your theme just happened to dovetail precisely with a rant I was planning to rant somewhere…

6  Paul wrote:

Justice is a necessary invention of governments that need the involvement of the governed. It is always a system for delivering on the promise that the interests of the weak will be protected from the rampages of the strong. There is not a lot of justice in dictatorships or in war zones, but for very different reasons. Dictatorships and tyrannies don’t want the involvement of the governed. War zones can’t support the investigative and procedural overhead of assessing the real interests of the weak, and of prosecuting the rampaging strong. Iraq is still, for all practical purposes, a war zone, and that is what is leading to a lot of the failures in meeting expectations we are having there.

GWB is in the driver’s seat of a government that could, if it went to full war footing, as it did for WWII, overrun every bit of the territory of the Middle East that was suspicious, and sort through the populations we found with a lice comb, as we did in Europe at the end of WWII. Based on my personal experiences in the Middle East, that is the kind of effort that would be required to impose a settlement there in our lifetime. But we are nowhere near being ready to do that. Our armed forces are still on a voluntary system of manpower acquistion, and we are debating budgeting issues for the putative War On Terrorism, as we do annually for the concurrent War On Drugs, and all the other wars we’re leading, or are allies in, at any given time.

Fact is, we’ve become so innured to hyperbole from our leadership, that hyperbole is now the lingua franca of political debate and national policy discussions. Our leaders ought not use the word “war” unless they are talking about an all out national mobilization to achieve a vital national interest by application of overwhelming military force, as a last resort. When we go to war, we should be nothing less than fierce and terrible, so that we are not going to war as a matter of course.

Iraq today would be a different place if we had gone in with 500,000 to 750,000 troops, and cleaned out the Baathist strongholds as we found them, instead of driving around them. Afghanistan would not be the sinkhole it has been for all the 20th century up to now, if our ambitions and methods weren’t as “limited.”

An approach of limited involvements with acceptable casualties in support of pragmatic aims bleeds us slowly, and erodes our moral judgement. Events are never black and white, and motives are never pure, but we can clean them up in the history books we write later, applying and encouraging our concept of justice in a situation we create, if we control the ground now, and clean out our foes. See WWII, and Europe and Japan 60 years on. Contrast to Korea, Vietnam, and Columbia of today.

I think your beef with GWB on his use of hyperbole is warranted, but he knows his audiences expect it, and he is still getting advice that it is the best way of proceeding. That feeds over-the-top responses from the likes of Al Gore and others, and we move still farther from a real policy discourse, not to mention, real stability. And, unfortunately, justice requires the time and quiet of stability. She’s a blind woman, after all.

7  Ole wrote:

Paul – even if the US did decide to “geflatten” most of the Middle East as indeed most af Europe was “geflattened” during WWII, I’m quite convinced it would require more years than anyone can anticipate before the minds of the populations would be set for democracy and “not-hating-everything-from-the-US”

Read this for more – I’m not quite sure I agree with everything Clark writes, but I sure do agree with his views on the absolutely humongous difference between Europe anno 1945 and Iraq 2004.

Comment by Ole · 05/28/2004 03:01 PM
8  Paul wrote:

Thanks for the pointer, Ole. Clark bites off a lot in that article, and in order to get through it, he has to summarize big topics, some times more than they deserve. Let me see if I can illustrate, without getting Godwin’s Law invoked here…:-) It’s really a discussion of Lanchester’s Law that I want to make.

Two things that are substantially different about the American occupations of Europe and Japan after WWII and our present occupation of Iraq that Clark doesn’t develop:

First, in both those theaters, at the end of hostilities, we had crushed all formal armed resistance, and were effective in eliminating counter-insurgents (and there were significant guerilla units organized for post-occupation resistance in both theatres) within a few months, primarily because we had the troops in theatre to do that. As a result, we were the only powers to deal with on the minds of the populace. The people of Munich were taken out to Dachau by the trolley load, by American Army order, and made to walk through the camp, clean it up, and nurse the sick, to dispel any ability by the civilian populace to distance itself from the defeated regime. They cried and complained of exposure to disease, but the former bankers and housefrau’s kept sweeping and washing at the point of American bayonets held by disgusted GI’s, until the American command structure had made its point with the populace. Some of those occupation photos are still up on the displays in the visitor center at Dachau.

Second, with 69 infantry divisions on the ground in Europe at the end of the war in 1945, and more Allied troops besides, there were plenty of people for stockade duty, civil policing, key construction and civil works projects, so that the setup and return to civilian rule was credible, and brisk. The American infantry soldier may be far more effective in combat than his WWII brother, because of improvements in air coordination, intelligence, tactics, etc., but as a policeman, a water systems engineer, a telephone repairman, or a truck driver, neither he or his civilian contractor replacement gets much of a force multiplier. And there are not nearly enough Americans in Iraq to conduct a credible stabilization effort, before the upcoming sham turnover of authority on June 30.

I’m very apprehensive as to what we will see in July and August. But beyond this, our effort in Iraq sets a bad precedent in the minds of our own people. We are somehow of the opinion that because of our technological superiority, we can “go in light and fast,” conduct some “surgical operations” with minimal casualties to ourselves and to “innocents,” and walk away with the thanks of oppressed people everywhere, while financing the whole thing on “operational supplementals.” That’s just BS. Wars, even high tech ones, aren’t that simple.

When CNN correspondents in Baghad didn’t know for sure if our “shock and awe” phase had begun or not at the beginning of the war, I knew this effort was akimbo. There was no doubt about “shock and awe” in Dresden on 13 Feb 1945…

9  Reid wrote:

The problem with “shock and awe” was the fact it was talked about incessantly in the weeks preceding the war. How can someone be shocked when you’ve been telling them for weeks you’re going to try and shock them? If no one had ever used those words in public prior to March 19, the massive ordnance that went off along the banks of the Tigris would have been … well, shocking! Awe inspiring! Not like finally seeing a predictable special effects movie that’s been hyped for weeks.

69 infantry divisions on the ground in Europe at the end of the war in 1945” ... and we ended the Iraq campaign with about 5 divisions on the ground. After a war filled with ethnic strife in the Balkans, the “peacekeeping” force was sized based on having one soldier per 50 citizens in the population. Though hardly perfect, it’s prevented most mayhem. In Iraq, that figure is closer to one soldier per 200 citizens, and lots more mayhem.

With the benefit of hindsight, a minimum of 300,000, up to possibly 400,000 armed troops, might have created a more immediate sense of stability, and therefore moved Iraq forward to self governance more quickly. But it’s also clear that we’re having a hard time maintaining a force level of less than 150,000 in Iraq. Where would those other 150,000 to 250,000 troops have come from?

Answering that question opens a whole other can of worms we’ll not get into here. But you’re right, it’s clear we’ve proven that we can tactically win a large scale war with a much smaller force than in 1991. And we’re also on the very verge of proving that tactical victory can turn into a strategic defeat, when you fail to quickly establish security and stability … because you don’t have the forces.

It was our Geneva Convention obligation to immediately provide for the stability and security of the Iraqi people. And here we are over a year later, about to hand over “control” to an Iraqi government that will not even have the monopoly on using violent force within its own populace, due to the militias we never disbanded (despite a year of talk we should/would).

I’m trying to be optimistic about July and August, though. There’s a long string of potential ugly noise in other areas of the world during that time period. Let’s at least hope Iraq is quiet

10  Jan wrote:

Reid, W does not care about “all that”. W cares about preservation of W’s mission, end of story. The talking heads read way too much into W’s words and deeds. He really is a simpleton. By his own admission countless times, W is not a big picture man, nor is he interested in details. He has a short attention span and a very narrow focus. The scary thing is that half the voters in this country seem to think those are admirable traits in a President.

Evangellicals and Extremists of all persuasions give me the willies. If a sufficient percentage of the population believe the end of the world is near, they will find a way to make it happen. W belongs to both groups and he is on a mission to force his god’s will on those of a lesser god. Our trouble is that he has picked on some groups of people who are lot more dedicated and more deadly than he can comprehend. And W, being of the infallibility school does not have an imagination that can wrap around the concept that he just might be mistaken.

“God wants me to be President”—W

Comment by Jan · 05/29/2004 04:10 PM
11  APF wrote:

“My complaint is the loose way in which our leaders speak in the immediate aftermath of some violent tragedy.”

Perhaps, but it is nontheless better than saying, “this is a tragedy and we’d love to find the people who did this, but only if conditions on the ground allow us to do so; we have a powerful military but we’re not omnicient, and we also have to operate within the constraints of what is acceptable politically—because we have a number of simultaneous and often conflicting goals we must prioritize, and that often means we are faced with imperfect decisions, where we have to try to make the best choice, although we may not be entirely happy about it.”


Comment by APF · 05/29/2004 07:08 PM
12  Patton wrote:


First off, your ending quote is off-base: Bush has never claimed God wanted him to be president. Some nitwit at the 700 Club may have made this absurd assertion, but not Bush. If I’m wrong on that, I’d really appreciate a credible citation, with a link.

Second, an as a broader matter, I’ll ignore your unfounded assertion of “Bush as simpleton” to focus on your other unfounded assertion that Bush governs as an overt, or even covert Evangelical or religious extremist. I can’t think of a single thing in the past three years to support such an accusation. I’m right there with you on the willies – extremists, of all stripes, vex me greatly. Please don’t be one of them, and argue with your head rather than your gall bladder, which is a source of bile, but not intelligent thought.

13  Jan wrote:

Patton, did you follow the last campaign? Did you watch the debates and listen to the campaign speeches. Bush is a self-professed, born again, evangelical christian. He cites Jesus as the most influential person in his life. These are his claims, not mine. White House staffers have complained about being pressured to join the “right” bible study groups. Reports by such diverse publications as Vanity Fair and Frontline have documented his stated, absolute believe that “God wants me to be President”. Links? I am not a blogger and do not keep a running list of links. I am not known as a false prophet either, not that you would know or should care. I have heard this from several sources. One is probably the Frontline story, “The Jesus Factor”.

Unfounded assertion that Bush is a simpleton? Follow the paper and video trail of the man and his own words and make your own conclusions. Is it not odd that not a single person can be found to speak about his piloting or other skills in the National Guard? Or that they really cannot prove that he ever showed up anywhere for most of his service? Would you fly with him at the controls? He is known both for his disdain and dismissal of people who care about “the details” and his inability to pay attention and ask substantial questions in meetings. It is the subject of countless Sunday morning talking head shows, liberal and conservative alike. It is the subject of every kiss and tell book by everyone who has left his administration from cabinet members to career national security experts. They come away with the impression that the man either lacks the ability and focus to grasp situations and ask questions, or that he just could not care less about details.

Obviously, we disagree.

To me, every speach the man makes reveals his arrogant, my god is superior, evangellical attitude. Just look at his court appointments, his Attorney General, his version of the FDA, FCC, EPA, etc. Homeland Security – don’t get me started.

Frontline is far from a liberal organization – read any of their stories on Bush and ask your own questions. If you do that and still do not think Bush is runs an overtly evangellical administration, well we just disagree.

Constitutional ammendment to ban gay marriage… FDA chief overiding overwhelming recommendations of his own scientists to ban anything related to birth control… Anything else related to birth control or women’s rights… Faith based initiatives… Prayer in schools… He referred his invasion plan as a “Crusade” until his staff and spinners finally got him to shut up… The list is so long…

On his decision to make war on Iraq, “I prayed to God for guidance”. He did not consult with his father, Powell, Rumsfeld or the Joint Chiefs, he prayed.

The thing that really gets me is how this manifests in the administrations remarkable ability to keep their people quiet and to walk the party line. The truth is utterly alien to them. Bush was reported to have taken a bruising tumble while riding a bicycle on his recent vacation in Crawford. The official story was the incident happened due to the recent rains. According to the National Weather Service, it had not rained a drop in Crawford in the previous two weeks. They made a lot of fun of Kerry (an avid cyclist) taking a little fall on his bicycle a while back. WHY did they have to stand up in front of the national press and lie about why Bush fell of a bicycle? Why? Stupid arrogance? You tell me.

In Texas they have a saying, “all hat and no cows”.

Comment by Jan · 05/29/2004 10:58 PM
14  Patton wrote:

Jan: (I’m doing a stream of consciousness response to your last post, in the order of items you mentioned)

I found the transcript of the show you mentioned at – Bush is not quoted as having made that statement; it’s attributed to a Dr. Richard Land. I don’t believe quotes from preachers, Baptist or otherwise, with particular disdain for preachers with “Dr.” in front of their names. I do, however, support said preachers’ right to think anything they want about God’s wishes, and to make shit up if they like.

There’s an underlying issue here, a flaw in your line of argument. To base the argument on the fact that Bush is not an atheist makes no more sense to me than to do the same based on the fact he’s not a Buddhist. While I want my president to be someone with a moral base that can be counted upon, I don’t care what his personal faith is; I don’t even care if it informs his morality or his views on the world. In this context, then, I don’t care one whit if he claims that Jesus is the most influential person in his life. And neither should you, unless he begins to ram his religion down your throat. And I’d contend that he’s done nothing of the sort.

“Every speech”? You really need to watch fewer of his speeches, then – you’re hearing things that aren’t even thought, let alone said. And what his implementation of the FDA/FCC/EPA/Homeland Security has to do with an evangelical attitude is frankly beyond me. I have not a clue what you’re talking about. Ashcroft, I can understand, but only by implication – he, too, claims to be a Christian. But his prosecution of the laws of the land is separate from, say, his covering up the boobs on a statue – one’s his job, the other’s laughable, and he spends a whole lot more time doing his job than he does being a buffoon.

You’ve lost me again on the link between simpleton and his National Guard service, for two reasons. I think his Guard service is a red-herring issue, which doesn’t matter other than to make proponents of its supposed importance look as though they’re grasping at straws. I feel the same way about people who chase Kerry for his 30+ year old activities with the anti-Vietnam crowd. But what the hell does that have to do with your assertion of simpleness? Nothing, I’m afraid. “He is known both for his disdain and dismissal…”? Sorry – lost me there, too. The folks who’ve made these claims (Clarke, O’Neill) are folks with other axes to grind. Even if that weren’t true, however, I’ve been in situations before when people wanted to talk about something at a level beyond that at which it was important for me to listen, beating on a point long after I’d gotten it, in other words. Did that make me disdainful of details? No – I just disdained their flogging of dead equines. And Bush does the same thing, just at a much higher and more crucial level. And if you’re talking about others who’ve made such claims, feel free to trot them out. I’m unaware of them, and I’m unconvinced by an argument that begins with “Everyone says…”.

Frontline is absolutely a liberal organization, in the sense that it has antipathy for conservative viewpoints, but I’ll grant you that it’s a relatively reasonable organization. And I’ve read or seen their stories, but since they make the same claims you do, and I just disagree with you, I’m similarly unmoved by their take on things.

A constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage wouldn’t fit into Bush’s top 20 issues; I get the strong impression that he and I would agree that it’s a local issue, not a federal one, and he’s not beat the drum for it in any audible fashion. Birth control? BFD – that’s a Catholic issue, not an evangelical Christian issue; abortion is an issue that enflames the religious right, and it also rings pretty loudly for the population as a whole. I’m unaware of any women’s rights issues (since I don’t consider abortion to be a women’s rights issue, without regard to my opinion on abortion itself) against which Bush has made any substantive comments or actions. Faith based initiatives sound fine to me, as long as they’re not taken to the exclusion of appropriate (somewhere well short of pure socialism) governmental involvement. “Crusade”? As issues relative to intelligence, this one rates a zero. It’s a friggin’ word, and the Muslims need to take a Xanax, along with everyone else who wants to pick one word and impute some great and devious meaning to it. The list is long, you see, but it’s a meaningless list.

You said that he ”...prayed to God for guidance”. He did not consult with his father, Powell, Rumsfeld or the Joint Chiefs, he prayed.” That’s patently false, and you know it. He may well have prayed to God, an action with which I have no problem at all, and which may or may not have helped in any way, but you can’t possibly believe he talked to nobody else.

Keeping people quiet and walking the party line is how adults run businesses and governments. It has nothing to do with alienating the truth; it has to do with getting a mandate to govern, in an actual election, and then not spending the rest of your term trolling for polling data, either in real polls or through carefully crafted leaks to the press, just to see what Joe Sixpack wants you to do.

The bicycle incident is beneath comment on my part, both because it’s a nonsensical non-issue and indicates nothing at all, and because it’s a preface to another of your “They all said…” generalizations.

So let’s just agree to disagree.

Comments are closed for this article
Contact me to find out more