Friday, June 14, 2013

Arbitrary mercy is still arbitrary justice

I think Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both did the right thing.  Maybe the execution was imperfect, but the general notion of disclosing illegal or unethical activity is good.  I think we should hold them up as models of behavior.

I also think the government should put them on trial.  I know Manning already is, but the phrasing gets awkward.  They both broke the law.  I'm open to being convinced otherwise, and perhaps I will be, but for now, I believe that the laws they broke were not unjust.  Certainly if you break an unjust law then the law should be changed and the person pardoned.

In the meantime, why the contradiction?  Because there is none.  Rule of law matters.  The idea that we create laws and enforce them, evenly and fairly, is critical to a functioning society and government.  Letting people go because we decided that they had good intentions is dangerous.  It sets a precedent that can easily go the wrong way.

Good intentions are unlimited in scope and variety, running the gamut from stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry family to killing a person because you thought they were dishonorable.  To give greater weight to good intentions than to the law is to give greater weight to chaos.  Worse, it opens the door to arbitrary punishment or lack thereof, in which one person is judged to have had good intentions and another not.  But what means would we measure them?

Enforcing the law also acts as a safety mechanism.  While I think people should defy the system if they think it is unjust, it should not be costless.  The threat of imprisonment forces would-be rule breakers to be more careful in their actions.  They gather more evidence and look for context, to ensure that what they may be imprisoned for is actually worth the punishment.

However, I would not apply this to whistle-blowers, as defined by law.  If someone is legally forbidden from reporting illegal behavior, then that law in unjust and therefore there should be no prosecution.  And of course, if someone reports illegal behavior and broke no laws in the process, they should face no penalty.  Disclosing illegal activities should be encouraged at every opportunity.

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