On human shields, the 'system', and duty

Steven Den Beste's recent thoughts on human shields provides some fodder for some miscellaneous issues.

• Although Steven does not believe the human shields should be prosecuted for treason (he does believe they committed treason), he does believe they should be prosecuted for violating laws regarding travel and interaction with the Iraqi government. Setting aside the question of whether or not the War was justified, I disagree with Steven that the human shields committed treason. To me, treason - an inherently nebulous term - implies an active threat to the United States. The human shields were simply there for political propaganda, to try to change minds and effect policy change. They were in essence no different than any domestic war protestor, other than the fact that they were willing (many times inconsistently) to be in the line of fire. But they did not raise arms or fire weapons. They were never a threat; they were simply 'shields'.

They did not committ treason.

Having said that, their ethical standing is very different from that of innocent bystanders. Any just principle of warfare tries to minimize the harm to innocent bystandards. However, the human shields were not in any sense innocent bystandards. They chose to be in the line of fire. If the war is just and the enemy is a true threat, human shields are simply self-chosen obstacles to self-defense. One need not prefer the lives of others who wish to die over one's own life. The human shields were fair game during the fighting.

• Steven states, "But we are supposed to have a deep loyalty to the fundamental system itself and to the basic principles on which our system is founded: citizen rights, citizen involvement in politics, constrained representative government, and majority rule."

Are those really the basic principles on which our system is founded? If so, it is not a very good system. Of the principles listed, the first is simply not compatible with the last. Majority rule, aka democracy cannot be in any way compatible with natural - not citizen - rights. I submit that majority rule was not a principle that the Founders were especially fond of, as most of the early writings of the time are cautionary about the dangers of democracy. I do not share any sort of 'deep loyalty' to a system in which my neighbors can take my property by force, tell me how to educate my kids, prevent me from seeing certain types of doctors, or decide what kind of voluntary relationships I can partake in.

Further, the system today is not the same system it was in 1850 or in 1780. I think many of the Founders are rolling over in their graves at what has become of their noble experiment (California politics, anyone?). As the system has changed from a decentralized republic of nearly independent states for the purpose of securing natural rights, into a majoritarian democracy where rights are not objective but rather decided by vote, am I supposed to stay 'deeply loyal' to a system I find mostly corrupt? And if not, would I be evading my duty and thus face repercussions? Or would that be contradictory with the entire notion of natural rights?

• I become very skeptical when people use the word "duty." What exactly does it mean to have a "duty" to something? If I do not share the belief that I have that duty, what are the consequences? If the consequences involve action against my person or property, that sounds more like the ramifications of a "law", rather than a unique category of "duty." The only way duty becomes its own category of idea is if the consequences of not accepting said duty are social rather than political.

I view duty much like morality; civil society, not the government, should determine what is a duty. Duty arises out of the values of the plurality of individuals, and failure to carry out duty should result in non-violent consequences such as shunning, boycott, and ostracization by those individuals rather than prosecution by the state. That is not to say that duties such as patriotism are unimportant. Unlike many libertarians, I do not see patriotism as irrational emotionalism, but rather something vitally important to the survival of a society. Duties such as patriotism are societal evolutions that serve as solutions to the public goods problem of collective defense. The colonials may not have known the economics behind about public goods problems, but they understood them - "United we stand, divided we fall." A free society requires a culture of liberty. But that is a far cry from coercive consequences for dereliction of those duties, which in any consistent analysis, contradicts liberty itself.

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"Treason against the United

"Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." -- United States Constitution, Article III, Section 3.

They did commit treason. Unless an attempt to thwart an attack by the armed forces of the United States on the regime of Saddam Hussein did not give him "Aid and Comfort," a position I would hate to have to defend for stakes.

Francis, This is the reason


This is the reason I stated that "treason" is an inherently nebulous term. There are many things in the Constitution that I strongly disagree with, so I like to use definitions that make sense to me personally rather than what somebody else wrote in the past.

I see the human shields as being analagous to somebody throwing themselves in front of the enemy trying to shoot me to try to prevent me from shooting. If the person trying to shoot me is a threat, I am not obligated to stop shooting because the human shield is in my line of fire. Yet, the human shield also does not have a gun and is not firing at me. Thus, no treason.

You could make an argument that the human shield prevents me from actually hitting the enemy and thus endangers me; I am empathetic to that argument. However, on the larger scale of bombs vs. people, the presence of the human shield in front of a factory has no physical consequence to the success of the weapon hitting the target. The only effect the human shield has is psychological; if we call this treason, then any war protestor in America or anywhere else in the world is also committing treason. This comes too close for my tastes to calling free expression a crime.

Well, Jonathan, you can use

Well, Jonathan, you can use whatever definitions you like, but the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and its definition of treason -- the only crime defined in the Constitution, and the reasons for that are fascinating, but beyond the scope of this exchange -- is the one a federal court would be required to apply.

Johnathon, Nice post.


Nice post. Whether the human shields legally committed treason or not, politically it makes no sense to charge them with treason. Enforcing laws with subjective standards and death as a penalty should be done cautiously. A system must allow some flexibility around the edges.

I have trouble with some of your analytical constructs. Natural rights? Are not Americal rights strictly declaritive? "We hold these truths to be self-evident?". I find the idea of natural rights corrosive. What if we have no entitlements only responsibilities?

I also find the idea of "justified war" troubling. From whence does the standard of justification emerge? Says who? What are the consequences for breaching the standard? Who inflicts the consequences? War is strategic and only strategic. Pretending otherwise is foolish. Pretending otherwise while some actors demonstrably don't accept the standard is suicidal (at least irresponsible).


p.s. I agree. Elisabeth Rohm is adorably hot. Next to Sarah, she was the sexiest actress to have a repeat role in the BuffyAngelVerse.

Paul, I'm not sure of what


I'm not sure of what the source of your disagreement is:

I have trouble with some of your analytical constructs. Natural rights? Are not Americal rights strictly declaritive? "We hold these truths to be self-evident?". I find the idea of natural rights corrosive. What if we have no entitlements only responsibilities?

I like the idea of natural rights because it makes rights dependent only on being human, not dependent on society. Otherwise, you could say that blacks had no rights prior to 1863. Which is not true: they did have rights, but these natural rights were not being secured; it was this very fact that their rights existed from their nature as men but were being violated by slaveowners that caused outrage among abolitionists.

I also believe that the natural rights framework as seen by John Locke was what inspired the Founders to make the statement you quoted from the Declaration. So the 'American rights' and natural rights views aren't that far apart.

Duty of a representative: Is

Duty of a representative: Is it the duty of a representative to vote what he believes to be the best thing for his district, or should he attempt to find out what the people want and vote their wishes even though he believes those wishes to be wrong?