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Geneva Conventions

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The Washington Post and the New York Times lead with the story out of the Department of Justice that Justice lawyers have developed a rationale for CIA ignoring the Geneva Conventions in some circumstances. The news items center on the concept of doing (or not doing) something that would be considered "an outrage against human dignity." First, any outrageous act is not only an affront to the dignity of the target person, but also the perp, as it were, since that person's behavior denies the essential component of human reason and grace. The pictures of the men and women taunting and torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraeb prison in Iraq show Americans descended downward into bestial behaviors. But, none of the commentary today deals with that. The fatuous argument that "if I am defending the United States, that is, defense is my intention, then I am not, therefore, simultaneously commiting an outrage against you," is specious and so infantile an argument as to raise other questions about the Department of Justice. If I sharpen my spikes (provision myself) and slide into second base with my spikes aimed at your leg (intent) and tear your leg apart (outrage), how can I stand up to the umpire and claim I was only intending to reach 2nd safely? We human beings are multi-taskers and jurisprudence recognizes this throughout the law. Surely, the argument that what Americans do to others can be done by them to Americans should carry some weight. It is, I hope you noticed, the essence of the lex talionis of the Old Testament and, when reversed, the essence of the Golden Rule. Both articles mention this in passing, but the passivity of the reportage is appalling. I am not going to sit here and preach against doing horrible things in war or in non-war defense of one's nation. Horrible things are done, and living in a military-industrial complex does not justify them or make them any less horrible. The Germans indiscriminantly hurled V-1 and V-2 rockets at London for years, and in turn the Brits and Americans bombed the living hell out of Dresden and Hamburg. The fire storms created in Hamburg by the incendiary bombing created 150 mph winds on the outskirts just to feed oxygen into the flames. More people were killed in Tokyo by carpet bombing with incendiaries than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And those were the "surgical" horrors; the personal horrors were the maiming and intentional barbarism of hand-to-hand, flame-thrower to pillbox combat. War is not only hell, but it reduces human beings to savagery ... and this is why we have these "rules of engagement"—not so much to prevent atrocities and horrors, but to adjudicate them after the fact. It is a "victor's conceit," I suppose, but it as close as we can get to a rule of law when dealing with our savage impulses. We remove the right of individuals to carry out their own justice in civil society because we know from untold eons that families will wreak revenge on families who injure them. Iraq is a country where this is the case still. They haven't figured out that removing justice from the common man and putting it into courts stops endless barbarity. We have not solved it completely, of course, for states like Texas have a blood lust that shatters much of our illusions about ourselves. But, on a daily basis we rest much easier each day because justice is taken care of. In the case of international justice the bogey is sovereignty, that old-time illusion that the nations (birthplaces, literally) of the world have a special dispensation to ignore rules and laws, whenever they feel wronged or particularly wronged. It is like accepting civil justice, but swearing to your relatives that if the bastard who wronged you is not keel-hauled and fed to the sharks you will do it. Sovereignty is obsolete in these princincts. If you signed the Geneva Accords, or your predecessor fifty years ago did, then you are BOUND. There is no slack. You either renounce them or you abide by them. You cannot interpret them situationally to suit yourself. JB
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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