Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » November 2005 » For the Ethically Challenged White House...

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11/15/2005: For the Ethically Challenged White House...

Tom Engelhardt (Tomdispatch.com) Has this Hillarious Musing on the White House Ethic’s classes – and a few Ethical Questions for this Ethically Challenged bAdministration.

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”…Cynics might call this a classic case of closing the barn doors after most of the cows had been let out (and slaughtered) and only those with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (that's Mad Cow Disease to you) remained inside. But better informed observers suspect that this is another case of "lessons gleaned." Unfortunately, old habits die hard and so ethics in the White House is being treated in a highly secretive manner. Short of a thoroughly unethical leaker, the rest of us will, sadly, never benefit from the presentations of the White House Counsel's office.

Still, based on the public record and a knowledge of the cast of characters, a reasonable guesstimate can be made about the ethical questions likely to be raised and the lessons likely to be gleaned this week. After all, overseeing these lessons will be sometime lawyer (when she remembers to pay her Bar dues), failed Supreme Court nominee, exemplary writer of birthday cards, and White House Counsel Harriet ("You are the best governor ever!") Miers, a measured and thoughtful woman if ever you met one. And here are some of the crucial questions she is almost sure to raise -- and the kinds of practical, ethically sound answers that this particular White House might be happy with.

1. Question: Is it ethical to go over to "the dark side" and use "any means at our disposal" in the President's War on Terrorism, as our Vice President suggested on September 16, 2001? Answer: This one is simple. Yes. It was settled long ago by no less an authority than Cole Porter when he wrote his famous song, "Anything Goes." ("The world has gone mad today and good's bad today/And black's white today and day's night today…")

2. Question: If you are creating a global network of secret prisons in which "anything goes" and you attack a senator for suggesting that it is a "gulag," is it then ethical to situate some of your secret detention facilities in Eastern European "compounds" from the former Soviet Union's gulag? Answer: There is nothing unethical about this, though it may have been foolish from a public relations standpoint. (Mitigating circumstance: Eastern Europe is now a bustling place without many unused facilities. Even the former concentration camp at Auschwitz is a well-used tourist attraction!) Unethical, however, is the leaking of information about these perfectly ethical secret facilities. On this Senate Majority Leader Frist and other Republicans are already on the ethical job of hunting down the leaking dogs who let this news out and embarrassed our President.

3. Question: Was it unethical for President Bush not to fire Karl Rove on discovering that he had leaked information on CIA agent Valerie Plame. Answer: On September 30, 2003, the President urged anyone in his administration with information about the Plame leak to "come forward". Then, on June 10, 2004, he pledged that any staff member who leaked her name would be "fired." If, by "fired," the President actually meant dismissed from his position, then his behavior would be unethical. However, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, discharged from a position is only the eighth meaning of the word "fire," preceded by, among other definitions, "to bake in a kiln," "to dry by heating," and "to arouse the emotions of." This is admittedly a muddy area (as baking in a kiln might imply), a what "is is" problem on which no one should rush to ethical judgment.

4. Question: Is it ethical to exempt the CIA from a ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment? Answer: Of the four questions at hand, the first two are slam-dunks; the third, somewhat murkier, ethically speaking. However, this one -- as Miers will undoubtedly point out -- is by far the most complex and daunting of them all. She's certain to start by dismissing John McCain's so-called expertise on the matter. Having been tortured himself, he is obviously far too involved to have any perspective on this. On the other hand, while in Panama, the President grasped the essential ethical conundrum and stated it in the following way: "We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do to that effort, to that end, in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture." In other words -- a point also made by the Vice President -- it is not only critical but ethically aboveboard to exempt the CIA from any torture ban exactly because we don't torture, so it really doesn't matter if the Agency is exempt as long as it is; otherwise, our enemies might know that we won't torture them, which, as the President said, we won't; and then we'll have given away the interrogation game -- in which case we might have to torture them to reestablish our anti-torture position. In other words, the only humane and ethical stance available to the United States government is to insist on a torture exemption, while those who oppose such an exemption are, in reality, unethically promoting torture.

Questions for subsequent presentations are likely to include:

Is it ethical to insist that a superpatriotic energy corporation, once run by a high official of the U.S. government, suffer grievous losses by refunding the money from gross overcharges and shoddy work in Iraq?

Is it an ethical curve ball for Secretary of State Condoleezza ("Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." ) Rice to meet former exile and famed disseminator of prewar dis- and misinformation, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad ("cakewalk") Chalabi on his visit to Washington? (Rumor has it that this part of the presentation will feature guest speaker Judy Miller of the New York Times.)

Is it ethical to launch a war of aggression if we're the ones doing it and it's labeled a "preventive war"?
It is a sad fact of presidential history that recent two-term administrations have invariably become entrapped in cover-ups for acts of dubious legality. One ethical conclusion Miers reportedly expects to pass on to White House staffers in the course of her three-day ethical tour de force concerns exactly this. Her conclusion -- and the President's as well -- from a study of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton second terms is that there is nothing unethical about crime, only about botched cover-ups. As National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put the matter recently, "Some people say that the test of your principles [is] what you do when no one's looking."

On the one essential question that obsesses Washington insiders -- How will we know for sure if this administration doesn't hit that tipping point, doesn't turn that second-term corner, never sees the light at tunnel's end? -- there is now agreement. We'll know when the President takes the spongiform bull by the horns, and mandates a Miers-inspired ethics course for himself and his Vice President."

Karen on 11.15.05 @ 07:26 AM CST

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