Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Detainee rights, justice, and the Western hero

I was sitting in the bar last night having a few beers with two friends before we retired to one of their homes to watch last night’s baseball All Star game. The topic of justice for the detainees at Guantanamo prison somehow arose. One of those friends, an arch Republican and President Bush defender, said he thought what we ought to do to the detainees what they do to us. I responded, without thinking, “because we are better than them. And if you want to say you are better than them, you have to actually be better than them.” Of course, this is not the most reasoned response, but political banter in the bar presents even less opportunity for reasoned argument than blogging. My friend responded by commenting on how the US was fighting the so called war on terror with both hands tied behind its back, a comment I decided to leave alone since I faced a full evening of enjoying his hospitality at his home.

I think the automatic response I gave was partially due to my recent meditations on John Wayne and the roles he played in the Western movies. I once saw a snippet of an interview John Wayne gave. He was asked about his movie roles. His comment was that whatever flaws those characters may have, they are never petty or mean spirited. Thinking about his comment, I arrive at the conclusion that, in general, it is a fair assessment of those movie characters.

The typical Western hero does not kick a man when he is down nor does he torture him once he has gotten the better of him. The mystique of the Western hero arises not from his being the fastest gun or the hardest puncher, but from his strong belief in justice. It is always the Western hero who stands alone and backs down the lynch mob at the risk of his own life so as to deliver his prisoner to a fair trial.

I grew up with the Western movie and TV show as a weekly staple. However much myth might be mingled with the stories, the ideal of justice and decent behavior transcends the stories all the same.

One thing I would like to ask my friend who believes in beheading Guantanamo detainees is whether he is up to the job. Under the right circumstances, I just might ask him one day. I hope it is not when I’m feeling my liquor.

I don’t deny the traditional Western soap opera obscures the brutality of the time and the grave injustices done as Americans moved westward to take possession of the continent. First comes the myth; next comes the reality in the public imagination rather than the other way round. The remainder is an ideal of justice and a prudent and suitable behavior towards one’s enemies at the tribunal of world opinion and justice.

The first scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia after the intermission shows the reporter Bentley interviewing King Faisal about the desert war and Lawrence. King Faisal relates how the Turks torture and kill their captives, making killing the wounded before capture a necessity. He cites statistics to show this is not the case with his army. Bentley asks whether Lawrence has had any affect on these acts of mercy. Faisal replies, “ with Lawrence mercy is a passion. With us it is merely good manners. I leave you to decide which is the more reliable motive.” Towards the end of the movie Lawrence leads his troops in the massacre of a Turkish column in revenge for the Turks slaughter of an Arab village. He does this even though Sharif Ali reminds him his military mission is to capture Damascus before the British Army. I could go on as to how this scene relates to others at the beginning of the movie about barbarity and cruelty.

I’ll stand by what I said last night. If you say you are better than your enemy, you actually have to be better than your enemy.


At 4:18 PM, Blogger -epm said...

Excellent reflection.

Everytime I hear someone from the adminstration make the gosple assertion that these detainees are violent terrorists, the worst of the worst, I find myself saying "Good enough then... prove it." Seems a resonable request to make of someone so profoundly sure of their rightness. I mean, how hard could it be?

At 4:31 PM, Blogger Lynn said...


That's the question that has me stumped. It would seem a lot easier to proceed with fair trials and be done with it. Some people float the notion that we would be giving away state secrets, but I don't see how that situation would realistically arise.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger -epm said...

All too often "state secrets" is code for "politically embarrassing."


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