Naivete about politicians

So: a Yemini journalist reports on a U.S. airstrike in Yemen, revealing that it killed 14 women and 21 children. He’s then imprisoned by the Yemini government. The Yemini government faces pressure to release him, and is all set to do so, when Obama calls the Yemini president to “express concern” about the journalist. As a result, the journalist remains in prison to this day.

But Kevin Drum says this cannot possibly be about punishing the journalist for embarrassing the U.S. government, because hey, this really wasn’t all that embarrassing, and only a “sociopath” would want to keep an innocent person in prison. But Obama can’t possibly be a sociopath, so he can’t possibly have done this. This strikes me as astonishingly naive.

For one thing, has there ever been, in human history, a truly benevolent dictator? Has there ever been a leader who got hold of despotic power and didn’t abuse it in one way or another? I certainly don’t know of any. But if Drum is right, and only sociopaths behave that way, that means that no non-sociopath has ever succeeded in becoming ruler of an undemocratic government. That seems rather unlikely.

A better explanation is that, for whatever reason, even seemingly normal people, when given too much power, will abuse it.  That gives us good reason not to trust anyone who claims the power to, say, order citizens of his own country killed without trial (among other things) on the grounds that we’re sure he’s different from all the other rulers that have ever lived.

  • StevoR

    For one thing, has there ever been, in human history, a truly benevolent dictator? Has there ever been a leader who got hold of despotic power and didn’t abuse it in one way or another?

    Well since you asked – Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus apparently. See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinncinatus

    After this, the war ended and Cincinnatus disbanded his army. He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, a mere sixteen days after he had been nominated dictator.
    ..(snip) .. He came out of retirement again during his second term as dictator (439 BC) to put down a conspiracy of Spurius Maelius, who supposedly was planning to become king. He was nominated by his old friend and relative, Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus, consul of the year. Maelius was killed immediately when the Master of the Horse was sent to bring him to trial and the incipient coup [citation needed] perished with him. Once more he resigned his commission.[citation needed]
    Within his lifetime Cincinnatus became a legend to the Romans. Twice granted supreme power, he held onto it for not a day longer than absolutely necessary.

    Of course, its the exceptionthat prove stehrule isn’t it?

  • StevoR

    Aarrgh! Typos. For clarity that’s :

    Of course, its the exception that proves the rule isn’t it?

  • Kevin

    “A better explanation is that, for whatever reason, even seemingly normal people, when given too much power, will abuse it.”

    Yep. Confirmed by the Standford Prison Experiment.

    • Kevin

      Stanford*

  • Ryan Jean

    “For one thing, has there ever been, in human history, a truly benevolent dictator? Has there ever been a leader who got hold of despotic power and didn’t abuse it in one way or another?”

    StevoR is absolutely right about Cinncinatus, but for modern times we have to look to fiction to find such a thing. My favorite: Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Dictator

  • acroyear

    I’m thinking it is naive to say it is just about abusing power. It probably has a lot more to do with the Administration* having determined exactly where and how this journalist got his info and fears for what else he might know or reveal if set free. It is this same extreme position that has dominated other decisions – what else gets revealed if somebody actually talks?

    The entire decision to not prosecute Bush-era officials for their complicity in the torture actions (in gross contradiction to Obama’s campaign promises) probably has everything to do with this: there simply is no way to bring such a case public without revealing a mega shit-ton of information about how the CIA operatives are working out there in the middle east, destroying all of their programs (and putting many of the agents in danger).

    If there’s one thing that came out of both Watergate and Iran-Contra, it is that when these things go to trial (or even openly before Congress, who this time around don’t care enough to bother to bring it up), it is that a decade of information-gathering infrastructure can get destroyed overnight by such a hearing.

    Or at least, that’s what they’d say if anybody in the media actually bothered to ask them about it…

    * (yeah I think I’m going to capitalize that word every time from now on, when discussing matters like this)

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    acroyear #5

    I’m thinking it is naive to say it is just about abusing power. It probably has a lot more to do with the Administration* having determined exactly where and how this journalist got his info and fears for what else he might know or reveal if set free. It is this same extreme position that has dominated other decisions – what else gets revealed if somebody actually talks?

    During my tenure as a civil servant entrusted with governmental secrets, I discovered that a large number of secrets were classified to prevent embarrassment to senior officials. As a result I have severe problems taking national security as an excuse to hold someone in jail.

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