Friday, August 10, 2012

The opposite of a lynch mob

Patrick from Popehat linked an amazing piece this week about the American public's role in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre. After a six-member jury of military officers sentenced Lt. William Calley to life imprisonment for killing 22 civilians, the American public demanded his release and politicians like Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George Wallace came to his aid, eventually freeing him.

How would you feel if officials from throughout your state came to the aid and support of someone who did the same thing today in Iraq or Afghanistan? Remember, the 6 men who sentenced Calley were all senior officers, all had previously served as Lieutenants in their younger days, and 5/6 of them were combat veterans. They deliberated a long time and based their decision, presumably, on both the facts, any and all aggravation, mitigation, and extenuation while juxtaposing the whole shebang upon their own experiences as junior officers.

The author shared a story when he was in military school as a lieutenant and one of those six officers who served on the jury came in as a guest speaker. While banging the podium for emphasis, he told the class:

Listen Lieutenants. I want to make one thing clear, William Calley is a convicted MUR-DER-ER!

The author went on to question the assumption that collective beliefs are logically and ethically pure. In this case, a half-dozen well-informed men reached one careful conclusion and the general public misunderstood the situation and undid everything.

So should I take this example as an assault on my political beliefs or an excuse to reinforce them?

I believe our constitutional republic is a superior system to direct democracy because it shields decisions from the whims of the public and tells voters there are some things they simply can't do. That mechanism failed here and the ignorance of the public set a guilty man free.

On the other hand, I believe there is no guarantee that the people the government puts into place are going to be the wisest or most qualified. Political connections will play a much larger role than merit. While justice should never be decided democratically, I don't think the experts entrusted with power should be revered uncritically.

While decision making for individuals should be decided by those individuals, and not by the collective, this was not an example of people making choices about their own lives. This was a case of the ignorant collective deciding something for the entire nation, and it turned out, they got it completely wrong. Collective justice usually takes the form of a lynch mob. In this case, it was the complete opposite.

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