Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Concluding hostage comment

In the first three installments of my analysis (trans. a rant) I outlined first the reports of hostage taking by US troops in Iraq. What followed was looks at the definition of hostage taking, and its legal status. This post concerns the moral, as opposed to legal status of hostage taking. Or in other words, why such actions are not just illegal, they are profoundly wrong.

In summary:

  • There are a number of similar reports of detention of Iraqi civilians, with the apparent intent of inducing a relative, usually a spouse or parent, to surrender to occupation authorities. This includes the implied threat of continued detention if the real target does not respond.
  • If these reports are true, the actions described meet the international definition of hostage taking.
  • Such hostage taking is defined as a grave breach of international law, and as a war crime in international, US criminal, and US military law.
Three issues are what I would call utilitarian, or in more Catholic language, prudential issues. They are problems because when you balance the apparent good done against the problems caused, it is better not to choose these actions. First off, I think that our soldiers deserve clarity about what is expected from them -- combat is chaotic enough without adding chaotic enforcement of complex rules. We have already seen the result of a loose approach to the treatment of prisoners. Next, if this kind of activity is going on, it will further degrade the effectiveness of our efforts in Iraq. Taking hostages was one of Sadddam's tactics and we will find it difficult to persuade that we and our Iraqi allies are any different if we do the same.

Finally, we are now operating in a global postmodern predicament. There is a deep and growing distrust of existing institutions because there is a growing distrust of the fundamental framework of ideas they are based on. Also, there is no such thing as a local news story any more. Here's an example: I was shocked yesterday to find out that what appears to be an Italian web site (I'm not entirely sure) concentrating on Iraq (with a definitely anti-American slant) has posted my previous three posts in this series in their entirety. It's not illegal, as they followed the terms of my Creative Commons license for this site. I only caught it by checking my referrers yesterday. The tremendous and almost universal influence enjoyed by the United States over the past century or so has not come chiefly from military or economic power, although those play their role. It is that there has been an idea, an American story, that almost everyone in the world wanted to be a part of. But it is just that kind of story that many distrust now. We are going to have enough trouble maintaining influence without giving the world more reason to distrust us.

In those three cases, the long term damage done, in my opinion, far outweighs the short term benefit, if any, of the alleged hostage taking. But the problems with these acts, if these reports are true, are more fundamental. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.
Hostage taking violates fundamental standards of respect for human dignity and social solidarity. Human beings have value that transcends any material object, These acts reduce a human being to the level of a object whose value is determined by what it will bring, in this case influence over another person or organization. This violation is independent of what the "other side" is doing.

Postscript: I'm not really sorry to have made these posts, but they probably will not be repeated soon. There are other things to cover, and I'm still not sure what they have contributed. I guess we will see what happens.

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