Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal writer and former GOP speech writer, is an occasional guest on Morning Joe. A couple of weeks ago the topic of the day was torture. American torture. American torture of others – America committing war crimes as defined by the Geneva Convention. We wring our hands, questioning – What to do? What to do? Indict and prosecute the offenders? Sanction torture as an acceptable form of warfare? Noonan had a characteristically profound thought, wrapped in few words. Her quote: “Sometimes we just have to keep on walking.” She used this phrase again on ABC’s Roundtable.
Noonan’s words took me back about twenty years. I was attending a business conference in San Francisco. People from around the country were there and I made new acquaintances. (To put this in context, I am from Punkin Center, Missouri). One of my new friends and I were walking the streets of San Francisco, looking for a nice restaurant outside of our hotel. Along the way I marveled at the number of homeless people. They sat on the sidewalk, leaning against buildings, or slumping on the curbs. While walking past some of these downtrodden humans I looked at them – I made eye contact. Making eye contact seems natural for this small town boy. Where I come from it is considered rude to avoid eye contact. I looked only briefly into the sad eyes of a middle aged man and he immediately stood and approached me and my companion. ‘Got any change, man? I need a dollar.” I could not resist looking into his sad eyes.
My more sophisticated and worldly companion shuddered and said, “Don’t make eye contact with these people. Just keep on walking.”
Homeless people in daily life, and torture in times of war are not pleasant subjects. I have pondered Ms. Noonan’s words for a couple of weeks. I can only surmise that she believes the solution to the problems are more problematic than the problem itself. Sometimes the problems of humanity seem daunting, exasperating, and without end.
I see societal problems on a daily basis – problems that seem to be out my control. By myself, I have little influence on the problems of the world. I often find myself just walking, looking the other way and walking. I am not a rich man – and if I were, would throwing money at a problem necessarily alleviate the problem?
The problems of the world have often paled in comparison to my personal problems of raising a family, finding a descent home for my children, seeking job promotions, deciding on reliable means of transportation, saving money for retirement, helping with my grandchildren, and getting the grass cut before the football game on Sunday afternoon. The philosophy of “Just keep on walking” helped me keep my sanity during the daily troubles of just living.
As individuals living in a complex world we often have to ‘… keep on walking.’ But civilization only progresses when we look the problems in the eye. Where would we be without Hammurabi: “… the most remarkable of the Hammurabi records is his code of laws, the earliest-known example of a ruler proclaiming publicly to his people an entire body of laws, arranged in orderly groups, so that all men might read and know what was required of them.”
Hammurabi jump started the process of civilized man. He was the first to codify the law “so that all men might read and know what was required of them.” Hammurabi brought equality to the masses. He brought order. Everyone played by the same rules – and everyone knew before hand what the rules were.
The Geneva Convention is ‘… the core of international humanitarian law.’ ‘… so that all men might read and know what was required of them.” Law is a fickle animal. In order to have effective laws there have to be consequences when the law is not followed. The ideal of humanity is rooted in law. There is nothing else.
The homeless man on the streets of San Francisco was not breaking a law – and ‘keep on walking’ is not against the law. Some societal problems are categorized as moral rather than legal. I believe we do have moral obligations to our fellow man – but the next guy is not required to be guided by my definition of morals. Each of us is left to decide on moral grounds whether we ‘keep on walking’ or stop and lend a hand. Each is left to his own conscience.
But breaking a codified humanitarian law is different than violating individual standards of morals. Codified law is something that we have all agreed on. If we do not agree then there are codified procedural means of changing the law. Laws are only effective if we enforce them, if we hold people accountable. The President of the United States is not above the law – circumstances do not matter. The law is the law.
This sounds harsh, even cruel. We submit here that circumstances do not matter in deciding guilt or innocence – but circumstances do matter when deciding punishment. If leaders in the Government of the United States broke codified laws of humanity they should be held to account. If found guilty of violating the law, the circumstances should be weighed in deciding the punishment.
We cannot choose which laws we want to follow and which we can ignore. That is not how the concept of codified law works. Dick Cheney is in the news every week – with astonishing confessions of advocating the breaking of international law. Cheney readily admits to violating the law – and seems to feel justified because of circumstances. Cheney seems to believe that leaders of the United States are not bound by international law.
When the breaking of the law is shoved in our faces by the likes of Cheney we cannot ‘just keep on walking.” This flagrant bragging of violations of international law is the epitome of arrogance. It is like Bonnie and Clyde posing for pictures with their sub-machine guns – just daring anyone to try to stop them.
Some situations require us to walk away – other situations require that we never walk away.