Sunday, February 25, 2007

I'll take the Constitution for a Thousand Alex (Jeopardy American Style)

Did you know that there are more Americans who know how many different men have claimed to be the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter than know the number of Iraqi civilians who have died during the war? Their two estimates are apparently strikingly similar. There was a recent poll that found that half of America thinks fewer than 10,000 Iraqi civilians have died since March 2003. They do have a much better handle on the number of American soldiers killed in the war (more than 3,000).

This isn’t new. It’s long been a fact of American media life that five people trapped in a mine shaft in West Virginia is a front page headline for several days while fifty thousand dead in a typhoon say in Indonesia winds up on the back pages somewhere. The poll result may also just be yet another example of American innumeracy. After all, it seems that every week there are at least three reports of at least thirty civilians dying in a marketplace bombing. Anyone following the news would quickly realize that a number below 10,000 is virtually impossible.

I think the simplest explanation is that Americans choose what they pay attention to exceedingly narrowly. For instance, there were two very high profile trials in the last three weeks. While I think I heard one or two mentions of the case of the United States vs. Lewis Libby, I have yet to hear anyone talk about the court martial of Ehren Watada.

I first wrote about the Watada case some six weeks ago and had assumed that the court martial would become a significant news story once it started in February. In case you’ve forgotten or more likely had your attention diverted, Watada is an Army lieutenant who refused his orders to go to Iraq and is using a Nuremberg defense. That is, he acknowledges that an officer has a responsibility to follow orders from superiors, even a wrong order, but when an order is immoral or criminal, he has a duty not to obey it.

Rather surprisingly, the Watada case ended in a mistrial. Even more surprising, the prosecution requested the mistrial. Think about it! How often does that happen? Also consider the fact that this wasn’t a civilian trial, it was a court martial.

So what happened? Watada’s defense was always clear. He has never disputed the fact that he disobeyed the order to ship out to Iraq. His defense has always been based on the morality of the war itself i.e. If the administration lies about why the war is necessary and that misinformation is later documented and revealed, does a soldier still have a responsibility to fight in that war? The defense intended all along to put the war itself on trial.

No sane prosecutor would ever want this of course. It’s always easier to present the elements of the crime and simply show that each bit happened. Prosecutors generally prefer not to get into questions of circumstances, state of mind, or other subjective factors. In any case, prior to trial both sides agreed to a stipulation on the matter of Lt. Watada refusing his orders to ship out to Iraq. The court martial started and the Army prosecutors insisted that there must be no discussion of the morality of the war itself.

The judge stepped in and said, “Sorry, it’s obvious to me that the defense would never have agreed to such a stipulation if it can’t do that. Otherwise there’d be nothing to try. No stipulation.”

The prosecutors, after the jury had been empanelled and after opening statements, then asked for the mistrial. This is about as unlikely as the defense attorney in the BALCO case leaking evidence that incriminates his own client to newspaper reporters.
What’s going on? Why would the army allow Watada an out via “double jeopardy”, the constitutional guarantee that you can not be tried twice for the same crime?

Why was the Libby defense so lacking in spirit?

Why did Republicans in the senate fight so hard to prevent a debate on the escalation of the war?

Why is Great Britain, our most stalwart ally in this conflict, starting to withdraw its troops just as the United States is adding forces in the region?

Someone is absolutely terrified by the prospect of anyone using a national forum to debate the war. Why?

Well if that happens, more than a few Americans will have to pay attention to the fact that it hasn’t been 9,000 Iraqi civilians killed in our effort to stop the proliferation of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It’s more than likely over a hundred thousand people. At least one study believes it’s more than six hundred thousand.

Everyone understand that Anna Nicole Smith is that rare paternity case where possible Dads are coming forward because Anna Nicole’s daughter might be the heiress to hundreds of millions of dollars. If the Iraqi War gets debated in an open and sober forum, more American’s are going to understand that we let more than a hundred thousand people die for no clear reason unless it’s been to make certain people hundreds of millions of dollars.

The prosecutors in the Watada case have refiled their charges. While I am concerned that Lt. Watada is being subjected to double jeopardy, I’m more concerned that the soul of our nation remains in jeopardy.



At 2/26/2007 05:21:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

The truth of your piece makes me sad along with the fact that I allow myself to be diverted and distracted all the time.

At 2/26/2007 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

we all get diverted and distracted. I certainly do. It is, however, bizarre that Americans think just 9,000 civilians have died in Iraq when 995 died in a single incident.

At 2/26/2007 10:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of it is geographic and global ignorance but also there may be mathematical inability built into that stat. It's sad no matter how you slice it though.

At 2/26/2007 10:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I repeated what you already wrote, just skimmed through your post as it's kind of late out here.

At 2/26/2007 10:19:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

nice of you to come by and comment. I don't read everything word for word myself. It's always nice to know that anyone looked and read a little at any level.

I'm fine with disagreement about the war in this country. It's when you learn that so many people are simply misinformed, that it gets frustrating.

At 2/28/2007 01:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Watada is certainly a hero. Standing up against the savage contempt juggernaut that faces people who eschew bloodthirst is as culturally difficult for men as can be imagined.

The attacks on one's patriotism and manhood are nuclear. I wish him strength and peace.

At 2/28/2007 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

If we had a Supreme Court I trusted, I'd say his chances on the double jeopardy claim would be excellent. I still find it very interesting that the prosecution let it happen at all.

At 3/14/2007 10:11:00 AM, Blogger Charles Lambert said...

I've taken the liberty of linking to this piece because I'm not sure how many people outside the States know about this important case (and my handful of dedicated readers deserve to!) Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

At 4/21/2007 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

it's good to have you here and feel free to link whatever you like.


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