Rear Window and Governmental Ethics

Rear Window and Governmental Ethics November 14, 2007

The threat of terrorism in our back yard has made this a new world that we live in. It has made our government wrestle with new questions and find new answers, and all at break neck speed. I have never been happier to not be involved in politics myself, let alone to be the president. These days there is political tension over everything, least of which is the subject of “rendition.”

Rendition is the “handing over” of a person or property to another jurisdiction. In hot debate currently is the subject of Extraordinary Rendition, which involves the kidnapping of a suspected terrorist and the return of that person to their country of origin for interrogation and often torture. The process has taken severe heat in recent months after Maher Arar was returned to Syria, detained for a year, tortured and interrogated, only to find out that he knew nothing. Advocates of the process say that it is a good measure when used appropriately. “Don’t judge rendition by its abuses,” we are told. It’s not an easy subject to assess, however.

What measures are acceptable for the Government to take in the protection of our country? Is it acceptable for them to be merely pragmatic (i.e. whatever gets the job done is sufficient)?

I will grant that the arguments do seem to be all one-sided, as Priya Abraham has written in November 17th issue of World Magazine. Very little is heard from advocates of the tactic, most of the conversation is being held by its opposition (one need only see the upcoming Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon called, in an amazingly forthright fashion, Rendition). But these tactics raise, in my mind at least, a whole separate issue. What measures are acceptable for the Government to take in the protection of our country? Is it acceptable for them to be merely pragmatic (i.e. whatever gets the job done is sufficient)? I’ll certainly concede that the government has a role quite distinct, in many ways, from the average citizen. The Apostle Paul certainly understands the government to have certain authorities and rights that supersede and surpass our own. He writes:

Romans 13:1-5 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

So, in the apostle’s mind there is some manner in which the government is a “terror” to bad conduct. But the verse still doesn’t quite get at the unique situation we find ourselves in with the subject of rendition and a host of other matters. I have a bad taste in my mouth about rendition. There are major problems with this program and the failures seem, as far as I know (which is certainly not farther than you can throw a stone), to outweigh the benefits. The whole issue reminds me of a movie.

In Rear Window we have probably one of my favorite scenes of dialogue in all of film. L.B. Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) and Leeza (played by Grace Kelly) sit in his apartment distraught over the news that Thorwald, the man they have been spying on, did not kill his wife. L.B. wrestles within himself, over the shame he should feel and the disappointment he does feel, and finally he asks of Leeza, “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens…do you suppose its ethical even if you prove he didn’t commit a crime?” (I frequently pause at that line and ask, is it ethical even if you prove he did commit a crime?) This is the dilemma of rear window ethics. The scene plays out in my mind with this contemporary issue at the heart. Do you suppose it’s ethical to kidnap a man, torture a man, imprison him for years on end, to find out if he is the suspected terrorist you think he might be? Some might call this an issue of Rendition Ethics, but I am inclined to see the larger picture, as an issue of Governmental Ethics. Is rendition ethical behavior for our government? It’s a tough call, and boy am I glad not to be the President!

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