Guest Editorial: Asking questions of the new interim president

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Suppose your co-workers call a meeting and make the following proposal: We need to bend the rules in this special case in order to achieve an important goal. Do you go along with your co-workers, even if the rules in question uphold legal and moral standards?

Suppose your co-workers make another, different proposal: We need to change the rules so that what is now a crime is no longer a crime; otherwise, we won’t be able to achieve a very important goal. Do you go along with your co-workers in this case?

You can reasonably object to these loaded questions with: ‘There is no context.’ Fair enough.

Suppose the rules in question include the Geneva Conventions, U.S. treaty obligations that criminalize torture, along with other practices that are essential to the rule of law, for example, a prohibition on exporting prisoners to third-party states when knowing that these prisoners will be tortured. What would you do if your co-workers wanted to do these things?

These are questions about ethical leadership. If you play a leadership role in an organization (say, a business, a governmental agency or a university) and your co-workers propose morally and legally questionable compromises, do you stand idly by when the policies are being discussed? How about when the questionable policies come into effect?

Suppose a whistleblower raises moral and legal concerns about what your organization is doing. Do you stand idly by while she or he is thrown under the bus or scapegoated so that your organization can keep up an appearance of propriety and law abidingness?

In fact, these questions are not hypotheticals. They apply to K-State’s new interim president. Gen. Richard Myers served as an important adviser to George W. Bush, a president whose legacy will be forever tarnished by grave moral wrongs, not the least of which is the attempt to redefine both law and morality in order to make ‘wrong’ into ‘right.’

See, for example, the Human Rights Watch Report “Getting away with torture: The Bush administration and mistreatment of detainees” (July 12, 2011).

Do you remember Abu Ghraib? This was a notorious U.S.-run prison in Iraq, where prisoners were sexually abused by American citizens. According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh (The New Yorker, June 25, 2007), upon investigating reports of abuse at the prison, Gen. Antonio Taguba found, “Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees . . .(and) systemic and illegal abuse.”

Hersh presents a picture of Taguba as someone who stood on principle against the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. If Hersh’s presentation is accurate, Taguba exhibited real virtues, the kind that require standing on principle in the face of serious pressure from very powerful and hostile authorities.

According to Hersh’s characterization of events, Taguba’s report did far more to inspire damage control strategies than it did a serious investigation into the crimes that were allegedly committed. I’m not sure what Gen. Myers, who was a participant in conversations between Rumsfeld and Taguba, could or should have done in this context. But I think we should ask that question. Readers can find Hersh’s article “The General’s Report” on the web here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/06/25/the-generals-report

This is not an isolated example. In an essay about Gen. Myers, “The Complicit General” (New York Review of Books, Sept. 24, 2009), Philippe Sands reports on a number of ways that Gen. Myers participated in discussions about whether the Geneva Conventions applied to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

For example, Common Article 3 strictly prohibits ‘humiliating and degrading treatment’ and insists upon some basic standards of human decency that all democratic states accept as essential to the rule of law. Important members of the Bush administration infamously argued that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. And we know now that the Geneva Conventions were in practice violated in a systematic way. The Bush administration was ultimately defeated on this issue when the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions do in fact apply to prisoners held at Guantanamo. In a remark about Gen. Myers’ memoirs, Sands writes, “The fact is that General Myers’s principled position on the Geneva Conventions was an abject failure.” Those are harsh words.

My guess (just a guess, of course, because I did not participate in the selection process) is that questions about ethical leadership in the abovementioned contexts did not arise when weighing the pros and cons of selecting a controversial figure to replace President Schulz.

If we don’t ask these questions, who will?

Jon Mahoney, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Philosophy

Kansas State University

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