Never a Better Time to Talk Personal Responsibility in the Face of Evil

a friend of mine expressed the worry that The Picket Line was losing its focus and was in danger of becoming yet another blog featuring an underqualified amateur pundit giving his unsolicited opinion on current events.

The core focus of The Picket Line is my experiment with tax resistance. And so I cover news and historical reviews of tax resistance and tax resisters, various tax resistance methods and their pros and cons, and tax law changes of possible interest to resisters. Along with this I hit some tangential issues, for instance: tax law and tax policy in general, frugal living, the trials and tribulations of the IRS, and various other forms of protest and rebellion.

Sometimes I can’t help but just point out an example of just how bad this government is and what it’s spending our money on — in the hopes that for someone, somewhere, this will be the final straw, and they’ll stop feeding the machine. I’ve given into this temptation on a few occasions, although I’m trying to resist turning The Picket Line into My Daily Rant About Politics and Current Events.

But I’m also interested in examining the motivation behind tax resistance — what it hopes to accomplish, and why it is chosen as a technique or entered into inevitably as a result of one’s ethical beliefs. This necessarily brings up issues of complicity, stands of principle, the examples of the government atrocities of the past and those who participated and those who resisted, etc. On several occasions on this blog, I’ve discussed such things as the free will hypothesis, civilian casualties in war, Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, the Eichmann trial, the Milgram experiment, the Nazi extermination programs, the banality of evil, virtue ethics, the limits of culpability, and what a fitting personal response to all this might look like.

So you can’t blame me for pouncing on these recent stories of torture and its official imprimatur. There’s just too much material in this story that has a direct and concrete bearing on this same set of issues.

From a post-worth-reading at Hullabaloo:

I can’t get past the fact that this is the product of a “working group” of lawyers, all of them highly educated, presumably intelligent, decent hardworking Americans who love their country. And, not one of them resigned their post rather than participate in creating a legal justification for torture. And, it was not just an abstraction to them; they went into great detail about the precise amount of pain that was to be allowed. There are long passages in which the meaning of “severe pain” is discussed, the effect of long term mental damage is assessed and where the justification of the infliction of long term damage is defined as a matter of intent rather than result.

Maybe it’s true that “not one of them resigned,” but there were some people who were very aware of the horror they were being asked to participate in. That’s how these memos got leaked to the press and to human rights groups.

What was the process by which they came to these dry legalistic definition of when, how and where one is allowed to inflict terrible pain as long as it doesn’t reach the level of intensity that would accompany serious physical injury or organ failure? Did they discuss this around a conference table over a take-out Chinese dinner? Did they all nod their heads and take notes and write memos and have conference calls and send e-mails on the subject of what exactly the definition of “severe pain” is? Did they take their kid to school on the way to the meeting in which they finalized a report that says the president of the United States has the unlimited authority to order the torture of anyone he wants? Did they tell jokes on the way out?

Comparisons to other notorious memos are, of course, being made. And Hullabaloo has some good excerpts from the defense in the Nuremberg trials that sound like they could be from an upcoming Justice Department press release:

The prosecution accuses the Gestapo of having employed the third degree method of interrogation. I had already spoken about this when I discussed the question whether the methods employed by the Gestapo were criminal. At this point I have the following to say with reference to this accusation:

The documents submitted by the prosecution made it perfectly clear that it was only permissible to employ third degree methods of interrogation in exceptional cases, only with the observance of certain protective guarantees and only by order of higher authorities. Furthermore, it was not permissible to use these methods in order to force a confession; they could only be employed in the case of a refusal to give information vital to the interests of the State, and finally, only in the event of certain factual evidence.

Entire sections of the Gestapo, such as the counter-intelligence police and frontier police, have never carried out third degree interrogations. In the occupied territories, where occupation personnel were daily threatened by attempts on their lives, more severe methods of interrogation were permitted, if it was thought that in this manner the lives of German soldiers and officials might be protected against such threatened attempts. Torture of any kind was never officially condoned… [T]he officials of the Gestapo were continuously instructed during training courses and at regular intervals, to the effect that any ill-treatment during interrogations, in fact any ill-treatment of detainees in general, was prohibited.

Dubya joins Ashcroft in the disingenuous practice of responding to questions of “do you approve of torture” with answers like “we always follow the law:”

Q: Mr. President, I wanted to return to the question of torture. What we’ve learned from these memos this week is that the Department of Justice lawyers and the Pentagon lawyers have essentially worked out a way that U.S. officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law. So when you say that you want the U.S. to adhere to international and U.S. laws, that’s not very comforting. This is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?

BUSH: Look, I’m going to say it one more time. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws. And that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions from me to the government.