In taking action it is wise to consider not only the direct results of the action, but what kind of precedence it sets for others to follow.
Section I: An Example
We can take the case of piracy. If a youth pirates a computer game or a music CD which said youth could never realistically afford, it may be considered a victemless crime: under the letter of the law the child "stole" something but upon closer inspection since the author was in no (direct) way effected it is truely not stealing - if I steal your car then, by definition, you don't have the car anymore. If a 10 year old homeless kid burns a copy of some of your songs on a public library computer few would object. Fewer would prosecute.
However, it sets the precedence for others to pirate and if enough do everyone will suffer the consequences. In my experience (limited as it is) I have run across cases of whole nations being excluded from various services due to a small number of pirates.
On a greater scale, we could imagine the whole artisitc community collapsing if no sales are generated because all art is pirated.
On a side note, the one artistic industry most susceptable to piracy - the computer gaming industry - is larger (and has been for several years) than the movie industry where piracy (until recently) has been virtually no problem at all. So bad precendence has it's consequences but by and large our worst fears are not realized.
Section II: War
Now consider one of the worst crimes humans have managed to invent: war. My country, the USA, has invaded two souvern nations and replaced their governments - within the last year and a half.
In the first case, Afganastan, ostensively the USA invaded to root out the terrorists which were suspected to have links to the 9-11 attacks. Remember, no evidence was found until well into that campaign. The USA asked for Bin Laden to be handed over and when the Afgan government said they could not find him the USA attacked. We attacked both the Taliban and the Bin Laden's band.
Now, the USA cannot find Bin Laden. If he orchestrated an attack against, say, India what would we say? Just what the Afgan government said: we cannot find him. We are trying.
Another justification for attack was the Taliban government allowed Bin Laden to operate in the open, within Afgan borders. The current government within Afganistan cannot possibly hope to control all elements within it's borders.
Although it may sound otherwise, I do believe the Taliban were in collusion with Bin Laden. I do believe Bin Laden was behind the 9-11 attacks. I do believe going after Bin Laden - and the Taliban if they got in the way - was a good idea.
However, the way that the USA went about it sets dangerous precedence. Particularly considering the main arguments for attacking Afganistan still exist: the government cannot find Bin Laden and cannot control or secure the country.
Consider an alternative: the UN could have been consulted. The NATO alliance could have been invoked and at least a show of solidarity presented. Now, in hindsight, these steps seem obvious because of the Iraq situation. Yet the administration must have already known then that Iraq was next on the list.
Certainly, many will doubt that the UN Security Council would act swiftly but recall the almost universal support granted the US after the 9-11 attacks. Even if the UN did not act at all there would have been a discussion and nations would publically have to explain why they would be opposed to a US invasion of Afganistan. Even in the face of failure (most likely due to veto) the US would have come out with majority support. Recall even Syria, the nation the US has just had harsh words with, joined in the international effort to fight terrorism.
Now we have set the bar for invasion quite low. Just by consulting the UN it could be raised.
Further, the US could have declared war on Bin Laden's network and given a stern warning to the Taliban to stay out of it. Of course they would have joined with Bin Laden to fight. The "result" would have been the same but the precedence would have been quite different.
Now the US has set a precidence for attacking and overthrowing a nation because it cannot find it's criminals - but we could have set the precidence for attacking a nation only when it came to defend it's criminals.
Far more troubling to me as a US citizen, the prisoners taken are not declaired POWs. The geneva conventions are explicit on this point: any armed conflict is war and all prisoners taken are POWs. No distinction is made based on who started the war or the level of participation in actual combat.
Even US citizens living in the US have been designated "enemy combatents" and are not allowed any of their constitutional protections such as to know the charges against them, to have a public trial, to have any legal representation. Recently when asked why Jose Pedilla could not see a lawyer, the administration indicated it would interfere with his perception of dependance on his captors for such basic things as food and water.
This is torture. Our government tortures it's own citizens in hopes of gaining information from them. Please, help stop this. It sets a very bad precedence.
(You may not actually believe this, that the US government is capable of this but please refer to www.thislife.org, program #229 Secret Government.)
One wonders about the "enemy combatents" in Camp X-Ray in Cuba. Some of those recently released were old men. I wonder if any are children.
Recently, US POWs were displayed by Iraqi television, and the administration claimed this violated the geneva conventions. Helen Thomas asked if the US showing Afgan "enemy combatents" on television was also against the same convention. She was not answered. She was moved to the back of the press gallery from the front where her seniority has placed her for many years.
The precidence set in Iraq is far more unsetteling. The UN Security Council explicitly voted for "serious consequences" if Iraq did not "comply fully" with inspections. The US acted virtually alone as judge, jury and executioner.
As jury, the US found Iraq in violation of the resolution. As judge, the US decided what "serious consequences" meant. As executioner the results are clear.
Although it there was a coalition, there is no chance the coalition would have acted without the US and there is little doubt that the US would have acted without the coalition. That is not much of a coalition.
Thus far the US has found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (wmd)- the ones which Sadam Hussain said he destroyed and the US said they had intelligence which made certain that he had not. The same ones the inspectors could not find. The inspectors said they needed more people and more time. The US Army has quite a bit more resources on the ground right now than the UN ever did and has had complete access to facilities because of the war - which the UN never did. So the WMD are not easy to find. Like Bin Laden and Sadam Hussain we are told that they are no longer important - even though many of us believed the original goal was to find and neutralized them. Changing the goals of a mission in progress is not good precidence, either.
Yet the worst precedence is that of pre-emptive war. Countries like India who have neighbors like Pakistan are now considering pre-emptive war and in many ways have far more right to do so than the US ever did. Iraq could have tried to send agents against the US - Pakistan and India exchange these agents on an annual basis. It's rather like exchanging Christmas cards which say "F*ck You" but it is between two nations which have fought several wars in the last half century and now both have WMD of the nuclear kind.
If India and Pakistan fight a war few will call it pre-emptive because it is not. But even if they never lifted a finger - even if the governments are not behind the killings (as both governments claim) the US has taught them a lesson. It is a lesson we hope they do not practice.
And yet, like piracy, the worst has not yet happened. It would be very ignorant for either side to think an exchange of nuclear arms will in any way serve their interests - even if the leaders do live through it. The leaders are human and have children who I assume they want to protect.
So in the short run the US actions to depose a horrible regiem - one which used torture far, far worse than anything the US government has ever used. In doing so the US has done a great good in the world. It is the methods I question.
As in the case of Afganistan, there was an alternative. Consider if the US shared the intelligence on WMD with the inspectors. Either the intelligence is wrong (which today, April 22 2003 is looking quite likely) or the WMD are found. Either way the US has set a good precedence. The US follows the rules. The US accepts the limitations of real UN agents carrying out a real UN inspection. Perhaps someone would tip off the Iraqis.
Perhaps the WMD would be hidden and used later and people would die because of it - yet this is the price we must pay to follow the rules. It is not free but if we believe we are a world of law it is what must occur.
If the police have evidence, perhaps very good evidence, that a man has drugs in his flat they do not jump in and break down the door and grab it. They get a warrent - or they try. An impartial judge decides. Then they do barge in but they do not immediately convict the man even if the drugs are found they hold a trial. A jury of that man's peers decides his fate (if he wishes a trial by jury). He is provided with legal defense if he cannot afford to provide his own. His lawyer may be slick. The jury may be swayed by the slick lawyer. In fact, the jury might accept the guilt but vote for innocense because they feel the law is unjust.
There is always a price for living under laws. Only if we are committed to live with these laws can we improve them. Every time we step outside these laws, like some gunslinger in a western, we may do a good deed right we do not advance justice.
And like the gunslinger we better be prepared to sleep with the gun under our pillow and wake up at the slightest sound in the night because our enemies have learned it is right to attack pre-emptivly.
This is ironic as the war with Iraq was touted as increasing our national security. Yet it should not come as a surprise. It is not just my opinion that our security is lessened. The CIA openly stated before the war that going to war with Iraq would increase the likelyhood of WMD being used against Americans. In America.
(You can find this on www.thislife.org, program number 227 Why We Fight where Senator Bob Graham, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who requested this report actually asks the This American Life radio staff to try to get an answer from the Administration on this because they will not answer him.)
Section III: Super-duper Superconductive Superpower Argument
I do not expect this argument to resonate with many Americans. In my experience of telling this story, many people seem totally unconcerned with it because America is the sole Superpower. No precedence is bad because only the US has the power to act on that precedence. We must consider first whether might makes right and second, are we really all powerful?
Might Makes Right?
Cynically, we say all the matter is might. If a nation can do it, they will - if it serves their interest. Yet the US is at least pretending not to do this. The US has the power to take all the oil from Iraq. Yet we do not. The US has the power to hunt down radical islamic leaders who voice anti-American sentiment all over the globe and kill or at least threaten them. We do not. The US gave aid to China during the Vietnam war when a major dam broke. China was supporting Vietnam.
America should be a shining beacon of justice to the world. We are not now and I fear we may never be so again.
Thus it is a question of degree. America will do as America wants, but within limits. Some law is allowed but the US will not sign onto anti-land mine treaties or even rather mild environmental ones.
But without question America does follow rules. Might does not make right.
Superpower does not last forever. Just ask the English, or the French. The make up of the security council's perminant membership reflects power just half a century ago yet it is already rather outdated.
It is not difficult to imagine a country with a work ethic like Japan but cheap labor like China rising from the East with a brilliant economy. By attracting the most educated among us - the most creative the most enterprising such a nation could quickly overtake America in wealth. America has maintained it's superpower status by outspending other nations, such as Russia, yet we have acquired a massive debt in the process. Eventually the debt will come due. The interest on the debt alone is a huge fraction of the national budget - far larger now than military expendatures.
Further, forces within America fight right now to pull down the exact forces which drive our economy at a dizzying pace. Riots at the WTO meeting in Seattle reflect a larger sentiment in America. About one third of Americans under the age of 65 when without insurance during the 2001-2002 two year period. One quarter of those had no insurance at all for the entire two year period - that is one twelvth of the entire population. Numbers are far higher among children. People are beginning to ask why, as the richest nation in the world, do we live so poorly.
No one works more hours than Americans. Studies have shown that four 50 hour work weeks are no more productive than four 40 hour work weeks, but still Americans come in to work overtime. Employers expect it, and workers fear layoffs without it. More security for workers is virtually certain in the future and this will inevitably lead to a weaker economy (but perhaps a higher standard of living).
A common argument is that the nations are not nearly as large as America. With the European Union, the beginnings of end of the nation-state are near. Soon only nation-continents may be left with excluded countries as archaic anachronisms as single city nations such as Luxomburg and Monte Carlo are today. An Asian Union could be a serious force to be reconed with.
Precedence matters. Whether it is music piracy or war, considering what would happen if others follow in our footsteps is critical to living in a society ruled by laws and not might. The US has set very poor precidence, yet the worst has not occured. Americans now are unlikely to listen to this argument as they feel safe now, but may not in the future. It is this unknown future for which we must prepare and hope that law - good law which we have had plenty of time to work on - rules rather than mere might.