July 4, 2007

The Ambiguities of Independence

Two legal cases in early July: the commuted sentence of Scooter Libby in the U.S. and the re-incarceration of Mordechai Vanunu in Israel. The former was protected from the consequences of obstructing justice, a reward for helping the state to leak its intelligence secrets and confuse the public about threats beyond it. The latter is again in prison for communicating with "foreigners" after having, in 1986, told the truth about Israel's nuclear capabilities to the Times of London. One helped disseminate mis-information about nuclear threats to invite a war and another exposed the very real existence of a program that was developing them.

Libby will surely be pardoned, and in the meantime feted as martyr, financially rewarded for being the good soldier, and come to be a symbolic reminder of the grace afforded to those who stand steadfast with power. Vanunu was kidnapped in Rome by the Mossad, tried secretly for treason, and spent the better part of the last 21 years -- more than eleven in a tortuous, solitary confinement -- under arrest for betraying Israel's desire to keep its nuclear program and capabilities "ambiguous." It seems unlikely he will be allowed to leave prison and then, as is his stated wish, to leave Israel; the basis for his "freedom" has consistently been that he refrain from any contact with anyone not Israeli, and it is this encampment of his existence that he rejects. Surely there is the wish for some Devil's Island onto which he might be dropped.

But Libby's freedom and Vanunu's sacrifice are in view, reminders of the dictatorial impulses of democracies that forge themselves out of the heat of so-called emergencies.

A year after Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared, Hannah Arendt offered a more general theory of "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship." She writes there of the weapon of "irresponsibility": a moral act that is responsible not to the law, not the oaths of power, but to the dignity of being human. It is a fine philosophy. The current horrors of the world's power, embodied by those two men passing through the legal systems of the U.S. and Israel, makes it seem as dead as dust.