Moral bankruptcy

Sometimes, it’s time to take a step back.

On September 11, 2001, three planes, apparently hijacked by al Qaeda, crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon. A fourth plane, hijacked, but re-taken by its passengers, crashed into an open field. Some 3,000 people died on that day, in that tragedy.

Since then, the United States has launched two wars—not counting secret operations in numerous countries[1]—and is still fighting one of them. The death toll in these wars has far outweighed the 3,000 killed on that day. And we’ll probably never know for sure how many innocent people have died.[2]

That ought to cause at least a pause for reflection. The fact that, within the ruling elite, it has not leads me to suspect that perhaps I am too quick to dismiss Russell Kirk when he writes,

The individual is foolish, but the species is wise; prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.[3]

It is almost too easy to critique this passage. Prejudice, of course, has led to innumerable evils among humans on this planet. The notion of the “other” as something to be repelled, despised, and annihilated is far too common among our species. It is certainly not wisdom.

But when some things happen, we should have a moral reaction. They ought to hit us in the gut. They should provoke a visceral reaction rather than a rational one. We ought to say flatly, “This is wrong.” And sometimes, I wonder if this is not what Kirk, a traditionalist conservative, was referring to.

Should we really, as we have, just carry on as the Transportation Security Administration breaks diabetics’ insulin pumps?[4] When searches required to ride on an airplane feel like sexual assault?[5] When the TSA requires an elderly leukemia patient to remove her soiled diaper for their inspection?[6] When a TSA agent tells a teen to “cover herself?”[7]

Admittedly, incidents with the TSA have, by and large, been isolated. The agency attracts criticism—indeed practically begs for it—with the long lines, intrusive scanning, and pat-down searches that are humiliating at the very least. And so it is possible to argue that such events get blown out of proportion.

But then there are the incidents that expose an attitude that can’t simply be attributed to poorly-paid low-level workers such as TSA agents at airports. Incidents, for instance, that aren’t just incidents, such as the protracted and horrific mistreatment of Bradley Manning, whose crime seems to have been to expose war crimes,[8] or at least what ought to be regarded as war crimes.[9]

Philip Zimbardo draws a link between low-level misdeeds and higher-level complicity in discussing the “power of the situation.” Zimbardo knows something about this. He ran the Stanford Prison Experiments—now used as an object lesson in unethical research on human subjects—which he had to terminate early because conditions became so horrific. Worse than this, and Zimbardo deserves a lot of credit for devoting most of a book to this confession, he did not terminate the experiment because he recognized what had happened, but rather because his girl friend (later his wife) reacted with horror when she saw what was going on.[10]

Zimbardo argues that when low-level people in a hierarchy may commit heinous acts, and that when there is a pattern of them doing so, this cannot be attributed—as is so often done—to “a few bad apples.” Rather, the situation has its own power, which makes it difficult for people not to commit these acts. And using the Abu Ghraib abuses as an example, he asserts that the situation is effectively condoned by higher-ups, in that particular case, the Bush administration.[11]

Now, however, we are seeing an evil that has infected an entire society. In a moral society, Manning’s treatment would have been intolerable—absolutely unacceptable. In a moral society, the war crimes he has allegedly brought to light would be intolerable—absolutely unacceptable. Instead, people in the U.S. are, by and large, passive and complicit, as if the 9/11 attacks could in any way be construed to justify what is being done in their name. The consequences are nothing less than astonishing.

For example, the evidence that the United States is spying on its own citizens is, by now, irrefutable as the National Security Agency is collecting as much data as it can.[12] And even as a plurality consider Edward Snowden, who has leaked documentation of this, a “patriot,” a plurality in the same poll support the continuation of these practices.[13] Really! The vast amount of data being collected includes much that is, in a larger picture, mundane, but for individuals involved private: personal emails between lovers, for example. More seriously, health information. Emails between psychologists and their clients. Stuff that’s nobody’s business but the sender’s and the intended receiver’s.

U.S. society has seemingly lost that gut reaction that should scream, “This is wrong!”

And if ever there was evidence that the U.S. has gone over the edge, surely it lies in the fiasco of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ flight from a summit in Moscow back to his own country, diverted and required to land in Vienna as Portugal, France, Spain, and Italy are reported to have denied his jet permission to fly through (Updates, July 4, 5, and 6 2013: see correction and updates below). Why? Apparently a joke Morales made as he was leaving Moscow, that Snowden was waiting for him, justified a diplomatic incident.[14] Really. One might think some perspective was called for.

Or one might simply be astonished by the scale of self-righteousness that rationalizes spying on one’s own people, that rationalizes war crimes, and persecutes the whistle-blowers that expose these crimes,[15] crimes that would be repugnant to a moral society.

We ought to be thinking about that.

Correction, July 4, 2013: Due at least in part to confusion about Morales’ jet being permitted to land in Spain for refueling, this article omitted Spain from the list of countries that had refused permission permission to fly through their airspace. A MercoPress story had indicated that Morales had been permitted to land in Spain prior to being diverted to Vienna,[16] which certainly seems like a strange route for someone headed to Bolivia. The New York Times, however, clarified that the plane had been diverted while crossing Austria,[17] which makes much more sense. And an InterPress Service story offers a full list of the countries, stating that “Four European countries – France, Italy, Spain and Portugal – denied Morales’ presidential jet permission to fly through their airspace on his way back from Moscow to La Paz.”[18] This article has been corrected accordingly and the publication date, originally July 3, has been changed to July 4.

Update, July 5, 2013: Although Bolivia includes Spain in the list of countries that blocked Morales’ jet, Spain apparently denies having done so.[19]

Update II, July 5, 2013: According to the Associated Press, “Spain on Friday said it had been warned along with other European countries that Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence worker, was aboard the Bolivian presidential plane, an acknowledgement that the manhunt for the fugitive leaker had something to do with the plane’s unexpected diversion to Austria.”[20]

Update III, July 6, 2013: MercoPress has published a story elaborating on Spain’s position regarding the diversion of Morales’ jet. The country’s foreign minister claims to have accepted Morales’ word that Snowden was not on board but also to have received information that Snowden was on board and states that Spain did not deny Morales overflight or refueling permission.[21] France, it should be noted, also denied blocking the jet’s passage.[22] Whatever actually happened, it seems clear that the U.S., in its zeal to recapture Snowden, has overstepped badly, with Bolivia threatening to close the U.S. embassy and a meeting of Latin American ministers condemning the incident.[23] In addition, both Venezuela and Nicaragua have now offered Snowden asylum though at this writing it is unclear how he would get to either place.[24]

Update, June 15, 2014: Background on U.S. efforts to recover Edward Snowden, including the Austrian search of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, appears in the Washington Post:

In interviews, U.S. officials acknowledged that they had no specific intelligence that Snowden would be on Morales’s plane. But the Bolivian leader’s remark was enough to set in motion a plan to enlist France, Spain, Italy and Portugal to block the Bolivian president’s flight home.

“The United States did not request that any country force down President Morales’s plane,” said Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman. “What we did do . . . was communicate via diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries through which Mr. Snowden might transit.”

Another U.S. official described the effort as a “full-court press” involving CIA station chiefs in Europe.

As it crossed Austria, the aircraft made a sudden U-turn and landed in Vienna, where authorities searched the cabin — with Morales’s permission, officials said — but saw no sign of Snowden.

The initial, official explanation that Morales was merely making a refueling stop quickly yielded to recriminations and embarrassment.

Austrian officials said they were skeptical of the plan from the outset and noted that Morales’s plane had taken off from a different airport in Moscow than where Snowden was held. “Unless the Russians had carted him across the city,” one official said, it was unlikely he was on board.

Even if Snowden had been a passenger, officials said, it is unclear how he could have been removed from a Bolivian air force jet whose cabin would ordinarily be regarded as that country’s sovereign domain — especially in Austria, a country that considers itself diplomatically neutral.

“We would have looked foolish if Snowden had been on that plane sitting there grinning,” said a senior Austrian official. “There would have been nothing we could have done.”[25]

  1. [1]Chalmers Johnson, “America’s Empire of Bases,” TomDispatch, January 15, 2004,; Greg Miller, “Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing,” Washington Post, December 13, 2011,; Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” Nation, June 4, 2010,; Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 14, 2010,; Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries: The Pentagon’s New Power Elite,” TomDispatch, August 3, 2011,; Nick Turse, “The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global War: Special Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare,” TomDispatch, June 14, 2012,
  2. [2]Noah Shachtman, “Not Even the White House Knows the Drones’ Body Count,” Wired, September 29, 2012,
  3. [3]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001), 37-38.
  4. [4]ABC 4, “Diabetic teen upset with TSA screeners at Salt Lake City Airport,” June 6, 2012,; Rob Lovitt, “16-year-old diabetic blames TSA for breaking her insulin pump,” MSNBC, May 8, 2012,
  5. [5]Keith Laing, “Female senator tweets about ‘very uncomfortable’ screening by TSA,” The Hill, March 11, 2013,
  6. [6]Alex Sundby, “TSA defends removing adult’s diaper for pat down,” CBS News, June 27, 2011,
  7. [7]Keith Laing, “TSA agent tells teen to ‘cover herself’,” The Hill, June 17, 2013,
  8. [8]Democracy Now!, “Targeted Hacker Jacob Appelbaum on CISPA, Surveillance and the ‘Militarization of Cyberspace’,” April 26, 2012,; Kevin Gosztola, “Defense Motion Details Horrific Conditions Bradley Manning Was Subjected to at Quantico,” Firedoglake, August 10, 2012,; Glenn Greenwald, “The intellectual cowardice of Bradley Manning’s critics,” Salon, December 24, 2011,; Ed Pilkington, “Bradley Manning’s treatment was cruel and inhuman, UN torture chief rules,” Guardian, March 12, 2012,; Daniel Politi, “Judge: Bradley Manning Detention Conditions Were ‘Excessive’,” Slate, January 8, 2013,
  9. [9]Chase Madar, “What the Laws of War Allow: Do the WikiLeaks War Logs Reveal War Crimes — Or the Poverty of International Law?” TomDispatch, April 15, 2012,
  10. [10]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  11. [11]Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect.
  12. [12]James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired, March 15, 2012,; Dashiell Bennett, “Obama Administration Defends Its Right to Take All Your Phone Records,” Atlantic Wire, June 6, 2013,; Max Blumenthal, “Obama and His Allies Say the Govt Doesn’t Listen to Your Phone Calls — But the FBI Begs to Differ,” Alternet, June 16, 2013,; Alexander Bolton, “Senators: NSA phone sweeping has been going on since 2007,” Hill, June 6, 2013,; Stephen Braun, Anne Flaherty, Jack Gillum, and Matt Apuzzo, “Secret to Prism program: Even bigger data seizure,” Associated Press, June 15, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “Exposed: Inside the NSA’s Largest and Most Expansive Secret Domestic Spy Center in Bluffdale, Utah,” March 21, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “National Security Agency Whistleblower William Binney on Growing State Surveillance,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Whistleblower: The NSA Is Lying–U.S. Government Has Copies of Most of Your Emails,” April 20, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “NSA Whistleblowers: “All U.S. Citizens” Targeted by Surveillance Program, Not Just Verizon Customers,” June 6, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “Glenn Greenwald on How NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Helped Expose a ‘Massive Surveillance Apparatus’,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “‘On a Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian State’: NSA Whistleblower Rejects Gov’t Defense of Spying,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “‘You’re Being Watched’: Edward Snowden Emerges as Source Behind Explosive Revelations of NSA Spying,” June 10, 2013,; Democracy Now!, “More Intrusive Than Eavesdropping? NSA Collection of Metadata Hands Gov’t Sweeping Personal Info,” June 12, 2013,; “Edward Snowden Q&A: Dick Cheney traitor charge is ‘the highest honor’,” Guardian, June 17, 2013,; Peter Eisler and Susan Page, “3 NSA veterans speak out on whistle-blower: We told you so,” USA Today, June 16, 2013,; Conor Friedersdorf, “3 Former NSA Employees Praise Edward Snowden, Corroborate Key Claims,” Atlantic, June 18, 2013,; Ryan Gallagher, “Details Revealed on Secret U.S. ‘Ragtime’ Domestic Surveillance Program,” Slate, February 28, 2013,; Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, “U.S. intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013,; Greg Gordon, “Hints surface that NSA building massive, pervasive surveillance capability,” McClatchy, July 2, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, “Are all telephone calls recorded and accessible to the US government?” Guardian, March 4, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, “NSA collected US email records in bulk for more than two years under Obama,” Guardian, June 27, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others,” Guardian, June 6, 2013,; Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey, “Obama administration defends phone record collection,” Reuters, June 6, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “‘Now we are all persons of interest’,” Salon, June 6, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “Revealed: “Boundless Informant,” NSA’s powerful datamining tool,” Salon, June 9, 2013,; Niels Lesniewski, “Durbin Predicted NSA, Verizon Controversy in 2009,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, June 6, 2013,; Ewen MacAskill, Julian Borger, Nick Hopkins, Nick Davies and James Ball, “GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications,” Guardian, June 21, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “DOJ: We don’t need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats,” CNET News, May 8, 2013,; Declan McCullagh, “NSA spying flap extends to contents of U.S. phone calls,” CNet News, June 16, 2013,; Claire Cain Miller, “Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program,” New York Times, June 7, 2013,; Alex Pareene, “The government has all your info,” Salon, June 6, 2013,; Bill Quigley, “Twenty Examples of the Obama Administration’s Assault on Domestic Civil Liberties,” Truthout, December 7, 2011,; Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman, “US intelligence outlines checks it says validate surveillance,” Guardian, June 15, 2013,; Steven Rosenfeld, “How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian’s Nightmare,” Alternet, April 18, 2012,; Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” New York Times, June 5, 2013,; Bruce Schneier, “What We Don’t Know About Spying on Citizens: Scarier Than What We Know,” Atlantic< June 6, 2013,; WashingtonsBlog, “Americans Are The Most Spied On People In World History,” December 5, 2012,; Shaun Waterman, “Whistleblower’s NSA warning: ‘Just the tip of the iceberg’,” Washington Times, June 7, 2013,; Rachel Weiner, “Mark Udall: I tried to expose NSA program,” Washington Post, June 6, 2013,
  13. [13]Dan Murphy, “Americans say they are pretty comfortable with expanded government surveillance,” Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 2013,; Andy Sullivan, “More Americans see man who leaked NSA secrets as ‘patriot’ than traitor: Poll,” Reuters, June 12, 2013,
  14. [14]Associated Press, “Bolivian plane suspected of carrying Snowden rerouted,” Salon, July 2, 2013,; Diana Cariboni and Jared Metzker, “Snowden Is No Trifling Matter,” InterPress Service, July 4, 2013,; Mercopress, “Evo Morales’ plane rerouted on suspicion Snowden on board,” July 3, 2013,; William Neuman, Rick Gladstone, and Melissa Eddy, “Diversion of Bolivian Plane Angers Latin American Leaders,” New York Times, July 3, 2013,; Shaun Walker and Heather Saul, “Edward Snowden saga: Bolivia accuses Europe of ‘kidnapping’ Bolivian president in forcing Evo Morales’ plane to land in Vienna,” Independent, July 3, 2013,
  15. [15]Chris Cillizza, “How President Obama got out of balance on leaks,” Washington Post, May 20, 2013,; Josh Gerstein, “President Obama’s muddy transparency record,” Politico, March 5, 2012,; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama campaign brags about its whistleblower persecutions,” Guardian, September 5, 2012,; Paul Harris, “I have watched Barack Obama transform into the security president,” Guardian, June 15, 2013,; Scott Shane, “Obama Takes a Hard Line Against Leaks to Press,” New York Times, June 11, 2010,; David Sirota, “On freedom of speech, Obama-Nixon comparisons are apt,” Salon, May 22, 2013,; Peter Van Buren, “Leaking War: How Obama’s Targeted Killings, Leaks, and the Everything-Is-Classified State Have Fused,” TomDispatch, June 12, 2012,
  16. [16]Mercopress, “Evo Morales’ plane rerouted on suspicion Snowden on board.”
  17. [17]Neumann, Gladstone, and Eddy, “Diversion of Bolivian Plane Angers Latin American Leaders.”
  18. [18]Cariboni and Metzker, “Snowden Is No Trifling Matter.”
  19. [19]Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, “Latin America in row over Bolivia jet,” Independent, July 5, 2013,
  20. [20]Associated Press, “Nicaragua, Venezuela offer asylum to Snowden,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2013,,0,1513969.story
  21. [21]MercoPress, “Spain calls for calm over Bolivian plane incident, but anticipates ‘no apologies’,” July 5, 2013,
  22. [22]Walker and Saul, “Edward Snowden saga.”
  23. [23]Alexander Besant, “Bolivian leader threatens to close US embassy after plane scandal,” Global Post, July 5, 2013,; Neumann, Gladstone, and Eddy, “Diversion of Bolivian Plane Angers Latin American Leaders.”
  24. [24]Fabiola Sanchez and Luis Manuel Galeano, “Nicaragua, Venezuela offer asylum to Snowden,” Associated Press, July 5, 2013,
  25. [25]Greg Miller, “U.S. officials scrambled to nab Snowden, hoping he would take a wrong step. He didn’t,” Washington Post, June 14, 2014,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.