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My Thoughts

Leadership Without Responsibility

Cover of "Taxi To the Dark Side"

Watching the 2007 documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side, a review of the maltreatment, torture and murder of prisoners during the first half of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was struck not only by the human tragedy of war but also by the Hegelian tragedy in the confrontation of two rights: the right to defend oneself and the right to life. Our right to defend ourselves, via our democratic system of self-governance, comes at the expense of their right to life and the pursuit of happiness. We the people give consent to our elected officials and their appointees to exercise authority over us and on our behalf. They have a duty to protect our lives and our property. The tragic confrontation begins as soon as our leaders begin to exercise their authority.

The world has changed a lot since the booming 90s. It’s a different world and we are fighting a different kind of war. To use an example from Thomas P.M. Barnett, imagine a world in which Crazy Horse can get on an airplane and blow himself up in Washington a few hours later. This is truly a different type of fight and the only way to combat this is with accurate intelligence in the right place at the right time (asap!). But how will we go about this? For the state to protect the rights of its citizens it may well be necessary to infringe upon their rights and the rights of others, but in what ways and to what extents? Many forget that it was not only the citizenry but also public servants who were desirous of safety and comfort after September 11th and many controversial laws were enacted in a time of uncertainty and fear.

At the time and since then political and moral arguments have been constructed, debated and analyzed. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson though the actual originator is unknown). Political activism, journalism and philosophical and moral questioning are acts of vigilance every bit as important as the military struggle. It is through these legal, moral and philosophic struggles that insidious ideas are confronted in the marketplace of ideas and our vigilance is maintained. When two rights collide, we, reasonable and ethical beings, must resist the temptation to find one size fits all solutions and instead create frameworks which allow leaders to take effective actions while having both the right to be held responsible for their actions and inactions as well as the right to defend their selves from frivolous personal and professional attack.

Yet the nature of centralized leadership is such that underlings must be able to discern what is expected of them without direct contact with those at the top; it’s impossible to administer large organizations in a decentralized manner (at least with contemporary technology). This can be exploited by leaders to convey expectations and recommendations in the form of ambiguity thus maintaining plausible deniability and avoiding culpability. Ambiguity with regard to procedural guidelines can reasonably be taken to imply that the leadership may be willing to tolerate less-than-legal tactics to achieve the organizations ends. Without specifically articulating what constitutes acceptable means for achieving those ends leadership can deflect blame onto those lower in the organization than themselves. Taxi to the Dark Side discussed in depth how this led to the murder of scores of prisoners in US administered detention camps. The Bush Administration wanted to subject some captured combatants to torture techniques. To this end the administration fostered a culture of fear and urgency within the command structures responsible for gaining useful information from suspected terrorists. Military leaders communicated ambiguity from the Department of Defense regarding guidelines for interrogating prisoners down the chain of command to those under them, while pressuring them to collect intelligence which would save lives. Further, elected officials conveyed to leadership a strong desire for intelligence which would prove a working relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda and provide the basis for removing Saddam Hussein’s regime. So to what extent are the parties involved responsible? I believe those at the top should be, somehow, held responsible for their failure to give clear directions, to make decisions and to stand behind them; to be leaders.

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...

Early this year the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise liner, ran a shore at Isola del Giglio, Tuscany and partially cap-sized.  The accident became a media buzz in the weeks following after it was discovered that the Capitan of the vessel, Francesco Schettino, had fled the cruise liner in the initial minutes after the incident and was subsequently charged with so many crimes that if convicted he could be sentenced to 2,500 years. Many of his fellow officers who were present at the time of the accident were also charged with various forms of negligence and incompetence. This is the proper response to scandalous irresponsibility and dereliction of duty in the ranks of leadership. Yet there is a notion in the post-ideology ideology that goes along the lines of: our leaders cannot be punished if their policies are disasters or quasi legal or illegal because then no leader would be brave enough to enact necessary but unpopular policies. But I think this notion that punishment will interfere with effective decision making is missing the point, as it were, of failure. The reason leaders should be punished is because culpability for poor leadership will turn away those who are not bolstered by the bravery and perseverance bequeathed to those who are possessed of strong will and capability. The marketplace of ideas will weed out those possessed of frivolous, insidious and dangerous ideas – at least if the marketplace of ideas is healthy.

The market, and all meritocratic hierarchies, will fail to preform effectively if failures of leadership are not penalized. The threat of failure creates the need for courage and persistence in leadership, in entrepreneurship; it lends the pursuits their dignity. The failure of our justice, political and moral systems to pursue criminal action against very poor leadership is degrading the meritocracy and excusing our political incapability.  As Slavoj Zizek points out, in our modern society we get the rush of consumption without the substance: food without calories, coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol. Will we next allow ourselves to be sold leadership without responsibility?

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