Archive for April 27th, 2009

Bravery and Cowardice

April 27, 2009

Josh Marshall does an excellent job of concisely stating something I’ve been thinking for a long time, but couldn’t quite get into words:

Being bold means taking responsibility for being bold. As I’ve argued before, I think the answer to the ticking time bomb rationale for torture is this: that in the extremely unlikely circumstance that government officials ever found themselves in that position of having a ticking time bomb ticking away, they might have to make the decision to break the law. Not fudge it or keep their actions hidden, but take the decision on their own responsibility that it was the best thing to do in the situation — despite it being wrong as a general matter — and then bring their decision to attention of the people and law enforcement authorities and throw themselves on the mercy of the public.

In any case, if your patriotism is such that in an extreme situation you’d risk your own liberty to defend the lives of Americans, that’s courage.

A soldier or CIA agent who finds himself in a stark, apparently doomsday scenario, and makes the decision to do what looks for all the world like the thing that needs to be done, even though he knows it is illegal, has done a truly brave thing.  He has put his own liberty and reputation at risk for his country.

If that soldier or agent then tries to hide what he did, he’s taken a bit of the shine off his bravery.

If he lies to cover it up, he tarnishes it.

If he breaks the law to cover it up, he spoils it entirely.

If he turns the law on its head by insisting that what he did was never illegal, he has done a cowardly thing.

If he turns the very principles of the Constitution on their head by insisting that the American people have no right even to know what he did or review its legality or make a decision on whether or not to hold him accountable for it given his circumstances, he is a coward.

Rather than sacrifice himself for his country, he has sacrificed his country for himself.