Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Question Of Accountability

I found this question from John Aravosis fascinating:

People like to talk, especially, I've found, in Europe and the Middle East, about how they hate the US government but like the American people. They say you can't hold a people responsible for what its government does. That's always struck me as odd, since we live in a democracy where the people are the government, and in the case of Bush, 50% or more of the American people, up until recently, supported the man's folly.

When the people support the government, as in this case the Shia in Lebanon likely don't want the government clamping down on Hezbollah and its missile attacks on Israel, at what point are the people responsible for the actions of their own government, and at what point should they be held responsible for those actions?

Meaning, if Hezbollah missiles are killing Israelis, and Hezbollah's actions are supported by Lebanon's Shia population, doesn't Israel have the right to retaliate against the Shia in Lebanon? At the very least against their utilities and their roads? Putting aside the wisdom geo-politically of such action, morally isn't it any country's right to strike back?

Or, if you think that the Shia in Lebanon don't share responsibility, then do you also believe that Americans who supported Bush, and who voted for him twice, and who supported the war in Iraq don't share any of the blame for the mayhem Bush has unleashed over the past six years?

Let's boil this down to one question that's a little more universal: Should the citizens of a democracy be held responsible for the actions of the government they elected and what does that accountability mean?

As a quick first answer, I give a qualified "Yes". The citizens of a democracy bear the responsibility for the actions of their government. I believe that's true in any democracy where the elections are at least some semblance of fair. Certainly a case can be made in many putative democracies that the people have a limited role in choosing the government, and the U.S. is no exception to this. If you doubt, just ask yourself how many members of the Green, Libertarian, Justice, Socialist or Communist parties, or Independents, are currently serving in any of the three branches of the Federal Government? If you get beyond Rep. Bernie Sanders (I - VT) and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I - VT), let me know. Or ask yourself how many openly gay or openly non-religious folks are currently serving in the same capacity. I've got Rep. Barney Frank (D - MA) for the first and a whopping none for the second. The point is that while the political views of the people in the U.S. run the full gamut from far left to far right, our political leadership does not reflect that diversity. The same is true for nearly all democracies, though parliamentary democracies like Canada or Israel tend to have a much wider spectrum than our two party system.

Given that the elected representatives in a government are rarely, at least in the U.S., a good reflection of the populace, I believe that accountability for the government has practical, if not moral, limits. These two different aspects of accountability, practical and moral, reflect the mismatch between representation in government in a democracy and the actual views of the individual citizens.

On a moral level, I think the people of a democracy bear full responsibility for the acts committed on our behalf. This is one of my largest complaints about the Iraq war. All the senseless violence and destruction is being done in my name, even if I opposed the war and the administration conducting it. As an American, I have a moral responsibility to the rest of the world for what my country does. I believe, to a certain degree, that Lebanon has a similar responsibility. Those Shia who support Hezbollah bear a moral responsibility for the violent acts committed by Hezbollah. The issue gets a little more complex when you talk of Lebanon, however, because Hezbollah is more than a terrorist militia. It's also a political party and a social welfare provider. I think the fact that many Shia in Lebanon who depend on Hezbollah for welfare, as well as the Palestinians who depend on Hamas for the same reason, have their responsibility for the actions of these groups somewhat mitigated.

Which brings me to the practical aspect of accountability. While it's true that the supporters of Hezbollah or Hamas bear the moral responsibility for the violent acts of those groups, their practical accountability is mitigated by need. Some turning of a blind eye is expected when practical resistance equates to biting the hand that feeds. If I'm a Shiite man in Lebanon, who looks to Hezbollah to help me provide for my family, am I an enemy of Israel? No, I'm an ally of my family and my own well-being. Furthermore, for a nation like Israel or the U.S. to hold me accountable for "supporting terrorism" when in reality I'm only doing what's necessary for mine and my family's survival, is grossly unjust. That kind of call to accountability over-simplifies the roles that organizations like Hezbollah play in the Middle East, as well as assuming that the Shia in southern Lebanon have any viable alternative, which is certainly not clear. That kind of accountability by way of collective punishment is, at its heart, what stirs liberal outrage over the Israeli incursion into Lebanon: not that Israel should not oppose Hezbollah, with force when necessary, but that punishing those who support, willingly or out of necessity, Hezbollah should face retribution for that support.

So, to John's question of whether the Shia bear responsibility for Hezbollah's actions, I say "Yes" in a moral sense. I think that culpability should manifest itself in words and deeds that try and change the nature of Hezbollah or reduce its influence in Shia life. I say "No", however, to the practical side of that responsibility. The Shia in Lebanon do not deserve to be pounded by Israeli airstrikes because of the actions of Hezbollah, anymore than the conservatives who supported Bush and his invasion of Iraq deserve to be killed by Iraqis. I believe we in America have a responsibility to end our military occupation of Iraq and provide, as much as we can, the Iraqis with the resources to rebuild their lives. But I don't think we deserve to have the same violence visited upon us that we have visited upon the Iraqis. That sort of equivalence in accountability leads to the kind of tit-for-tat war in which the Israelis and Palestinians remain endlessly engaged.

Finally, in answer to John's question about conservative and hawkish voters bearing the blame for Iraq, I give a hearty "Yes", especially after 2004. In fact, I believe they bear much more blame for supporting the neo-conservatives than the Shia do for supporting Hezbollah. The reason is that no very few conservative voters rely on the Republican party for their well-being, nor is the GOP known for torturing or killing those who refuse to endorse its politics. Those who voted for Bush in support of Iraq did so with the full knowledge that they had other alternatives besides supporting violence and they chose war anyway. The Shia in southern Lebanon had no such guarantee of a safe alternative.

In the end, the question of accountability for a democracy is more complicated certainly than either Israel's or Hezbollah's justifications for war indicate. Accountability is certain in terms of a moral responsibility; a responsibility to make amends, to right the wrongs committed by a democratically-elected government and a commitment to change that government in a positive way. Each side owes peace and cooperation to the other, just as America owes that to the Iraqis. But accountability ends long before collective punishment and justifications for violence begin. The people of neither Lebanon nor Israel deserve to suffer bombings and missile strikes in response to the actions of their government or subjugating terrorist organization, anymore than the average war-loving American conservative deserves to be blown up by Iraqi insurgents for supporting the U.S. invasion. Otherwise, accountability becomes nothing more than endless retribution.

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