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Masters of Discontinuity

The buck stops at the bottom.

by Barnabas
May 5, 2004

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They keep asking why we hate them? Why we detest them? Maybe they should look well in the mirror and then they will hate themselves," said Khadija Mousa from Syria. "What I saw is very very humiliating. The Americans are showing their true image."
—Reuters, April 30

"I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated," Mr. Bush said."Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people" He added that the actions of a handful of soldiers should not taint the tens of thousands who serve honorably in Iraq. Mr. Bush emphasized that the investigation into the case was moving ahead. "I think they'll be taken care of," he said.
—Thom Shanker and Jacques Steinberg, "Bush Voices 'Disgust' at Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners," New York Times, May 1, 2004.

"Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf."
—Aaron to Moses, Exodus 32:34, NIV

The maltreatment of the Iraqi prisoners is impossible to justify in ethical terms. Moral insanity is sometimes a reason for dreadful behavior, but never a justification. I am not going to waste my space on pejorative adjectives aimed at the young men and women who did these things to their fellow human beings.

My theme instead is discontinuity. I wish the President’s expression of disgust had contained some acknowledgment or even awareness of the connection between his office and the prisoners and staff in that prison. In the Bush White House the buck never seems to stop on the President’s desk. It is instead passed down to the lowest levels of the executive branch, including the military, there to be treated as an anomaly, e.g. "Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people." The bad deeds at the bottom are dissociated from the decisions at the top. These decisions did not order the behavior of the soldiers, but they enabled them by creating the moral, psychological, social, and military environment in which the behavior occurred. The discontinuity is also from side to side, as though the right hand is not supposed to know what the left is doing.

One senior officer said flatly, "Those soldiers knew better." I’m not so sure they did, except in an emotionless, theoretical sense. Children, students, and military personnel learn what really matters to their parents, teachers, and commanders. They also come to know what doesn’t matter so much. "I can get away with this, but I wouldn’t try that for a million bucks." On my first day as a high school sophomore, the assistant principal talked to the whole class. She never raised her voice and didn’t bluster. She simply said, "In the past we have had a problem with sophomores hazing freshmen. The policy now is that any student caught hazing will be sent home." We never doubted her for a moment. Our school wasn’t perfect, but there was no hazing that year!

Aaron, in the Bible, made a golden calf for the people of Israel to worship. He discovered what a bad idea that was when his brother Moses returned and got really mad. Aaron discounted his part in it. All I did was throw some gold in the fire and out came this calf! I mean, you can’t expect a calf to come out just because you throw some gold in the fire!

Of course that wasn’t all that Aaron had done. He had put quite a bit of skilled work into that golden calf. If Moses had liked it, Aaron would probably have bragged about it. When Moses didn’t like it, Aaron said there was no effective connection between himself and the golden calf - just this mysterious, unpredictable result of throwing gold into the fire.

Why does Aaron come to mind when I think of the President? They are both masters of discontinuity.

Yes, it was the fault of the soldiers who did these horrible things, but we will learn nothing if we let the buck stop with them. It was their fault; but it may not have happened at all if their superiors, beginning in the White House, had exercised the discipline that would have put that behavior in the category of actions the soldiers wouldn’t do for a million bucks!

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