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Illegal Function or Fatal Error?

Role confusion and national integrity.

by Barnabas
May 12, 2004

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Military police (MPs) should not assist in making prisoners more pliable to interrogation, as their job is to keep prisoners safe. [In reference to an autumn investigation by the Provost Marshal of the Army]
—MSNBC, May 10, 2004.

"[In our village] Everybody knows who he is and what God wants him to do."
Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof.

If you are reading these words, you have a computer. If it runs on Windows software, on occasion you have been proceeding happily with your mouse and keyboard when a pop-up window suddenly declares that you (or at least the program you are running) have performed an illegal function. The only course left to you is to back out of the program as gracefully as you can, while attempting to save your work if you can. Much less often, but scarier, is the pop-up that declares a fatal error has occurred. Fatal to how much you don’t know until you boot up the computer again.

I have gotten the fatal error message a few times, but I’ve never had to replace my hard drive after one of them. Maybe "fatal" is an exaggeration. So is "illegal," as far as that goes. I resent being accused by an electronic machine of performing a criminal act, especially when the error is in the machine, not in anything I did.

Ethically speaking, this computerspeak has its uses. In daily life, we perform many illegal functions that do not rise to the level of fatal error. They are reparable. The loss is of time and good temper. Fatal errors, on the other hand, do permanent harm of some sort: to other people, or to our own reputations, careers, life, and liberty. Because consequences vary so much from day to day, today’s illegal function may be tomorrow’s fatal error.

The signs are increasing daily that the government’s improper use of the Military Police in their prisons was both an illegal function and a fatal error. The government must sort out the legal issues, but the moral issues are ours to deal with. Law is about justice, but morality is about responsibility.

I’m reminded of an episode in E.R., in which a young resident surgeon is operating on a premature infant. An emergency arises. The rules call for him to summon his supervisor to take over the operation; but in his self-confidence he tries to handle the emergency himself. The baby’s  life is put in extreme jeopardy. When the supervisor learns of it, she explodes at him: "If that baby dies, it will be my responsibility but it will be your fault!" She took responsibility. Whatever the law, the moral distinction between fault and responsibility is necessary.

As of this writing, none of the individuals who actually assigned improper duties (as defined by the Provost Marshal) to MPs have stepped up to take responsibility. Neither have those who gave them permission to issue such orders.  We need to know the source of this thinking.  Responsibility must not be avoided on the grounds of national security.  That cannot work this time, however.   If they  make this plea as the reason for silence when our national integrity is at stake, that may indeed prove to be a fatal error for the United States and its role in the world.

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