2013.08.04 Categories: politics Keywords: treason, loyalty, Bradley Manning, Collateral Murder, compassion, international law, law of war

Loyalty and Treason

When does loyalty to ones country become merely allegiance to its ruling class? Is such loyalty really a virtue or is it merely another form of treason?

Treason is something I have never been fully able to comprehend. I don't mean I do not understand why someone would commit treason. There are plenty of good and bad reasons for that, including money, sex (my personal favorite), a sense of allegiance to a foreign power, more complex sources of personal gain, or simply a natural drive to do what one understands as morally right. What I do not understand is the very concept of treason. More importantly, I cannot perceive what possible place the concept of treason could have in moral, or even legal, dialog.

My puzzlement about treason began as a preschool child. The paradoxical thing about the concept of treason is that it presupposes an enemy versus an in-group. For those of us who have never perceived moral questions that way, the concept of treason is difficult to wrap ones head around. For some of us, morality is about engaging with the other as a person, an inherent source of value. In that light, differing loyalties are best understood by walking in another person's pumps for a day, rather than through drawing lines of combat to delineate us versus them.

Unlike normal people, I never grew out of this phase of wondering why we cannot all just be friends because of, not in spite of, our differences. Rather, I went on to study philosophy, which only further complicated my difficulty understanding the concept.

From my point of view, treason, although it masquerades in dim light of polemic as a moral issue, actually has nothing to do with ethics. Doing the right thing, or the wrong thing, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether an act is treasonous. What is treason and what is not depends entirely on a person's allegiance, who they feel loyal to. Treason, in itself, could not be more morally neutral.

Instead of condemning people for being all treasonous and whatnot, it seems to me it would be more productive to ask ourselves in each instance what the people so labeled as traitors are acting out of loyalty to and how that loyalty differs from the types of loyalty that are not marked in a particular society as treasonous. Such an inquiry casts a revealing light on contemporary events.

When Manning saw what would later be packaged as the Collateral Murder video, his ethical allegiance was to the good Samaritan who was shot down with several other civilians, including children, rather than to the ice-blooded killers who mocked their victims from a position of safety high above the realm of death they generated gratuitously below. That allegiance, a compassionate heart, is the only equipment one needs to become a traitor in the United States these days.

Had Manning sided differently, he would not be called a traitor today. Let's enter that alternate universe. Let's say he sided with those who gunned down innocent people, those who committed torture, and the powerful who voiced these monstrosities into being. In such a non-traitorous time-line, who, though his silence, would Manning have been loyal to? The United States people? Citizens of the world? International law? The US constitution?

I do not personally know anyone here in the United States who would have benefited from Manning's silence. People the world over would not have benefited in this alternative universe by Bradley Manning being mum. The US constitution and international law, by then already long dead, would have been powerless to do anything but vomit in their graves.

It seems, by siding as he did, the Manning of our particular universe violated no loyalties save to those in the United States who wield power over the rest of us. The woman on the street, even if she is on a street in the US, is better off when international laws, including laws of war, are not treated as sick jokes.

Only those with outrageous power actually benefit from the power to act outrageously. By elevating such beings as worthy of our loyalty, we become traitors to ourselves.