Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A travesty of justice

Warning: Contains heavy spoilers for the third season of Battlestar Galactica.

When the second Exodus was over and the people rescued from Cylon occupation on New Caprica, then-president Tom Zarek performed the most idiotic of all moves by Executive Order: he legitimized the founding of a Circle of six men and women to try and judge the most notable collaborators of the occupation era. The Circle, as it was called proofing a sense of sincere sincerity, used evidence - witness reports and some looted documents, mostly - to judge the collaborators in question. They met in secrecy. The trial could have only two outcomes: death warrant or release. Guess which one was more likely. After the verdict was passed, the culprit was beaten up, taken into an airlock and got a chance to have his or her say before being flushed into space. No one was ever to hear of the culprits fate as to prevent civil war, and the Circle had only three days to conclude as many trials as they could. Gee, what could possibly go wrong? 

Around his neck: the Medal of Dumbassery, First Class

Things even went better when you look at who made up this "peers" that should judge the collaborators. There's the one guy, Connor, who lost his son in a raid and wants to kill everyone responsible. There's Colonel Tigh, who lost an eye in detention torture and murdered his wife for freeing him. There's the Chief, a high ranking member of the resistance. There's Anders, another resistance member. There's Seelix, same. And Jean Barolay is essentially Anders' lapdog. All of them have high personal stakes on the other side ruling them unfit to be judges. If you do such a thing, you would need to take people that were with the fleet, because they at least were no first-hand witnesses and could at least try to be impartial. This Circle doesn't even bother. When they have Jammer in the opening moments of the episode in question ("Collaborators"), Connor screams at him and makes him responsible for the death of his son. When Jammer tries to argue that he rescued Cally, Tigh single-handedly turns over the verdict (that was already passed, mind you) in Tyrol's hands, who in turn decides on the whim of the moment by the emotions Jammer is able to ewoke in him. The Roman empererors made better founded decisions when they turned their thumb over the fate of fallen gladiators. 

Depicted: the next appointee for the Supreme Court.
The whole travesty of this "justice" farce is revealed when we actually witness a session of "The Circle": they have a picture of the culprit and "eye witness reports" that are never even discussed - one of the six judges knows them and tells the rest that they exist, and that's enough to pass judgement on a poor gal that is to be flushed out by "some guys we know" on the ship she is residing, presumably without getting heard by the Circle. Not that it would matter with these guys. Connor then talks himself into rage, telling everyone that they are "so guilty they stink", which prompts Tigh into a show of "mean old man" when he slams Connors head on the table, barking at him that it's about justice, not about revenge. Yeah, I hear you. The real fun starts only ten seconds later when they come to Felix Gaeta, former Chief of Staff for President Baltar. 

With a look that insolent he needs to be guilty!
Tigh, just finishing his "it's about justice"-speech, is instantly boiling over, personally despising Gaeta and turning into his guilty-routine. Thankfully, Anders grows a conscience and leaves, leaving them one person short of being able to carry out sentences. Unfortunately, Starbuck jumps in, taking the spot, on the express motivation of "hurting someone". Clearly such motivations are best if you want to do some justice, but a person like her was exactly what they were looking for, as Seelix' look at recruiting her shows without a doubt. Starbuch's quick enough to pass judgement, and only the Chief remains as the voice of reason, stating that they have in fact no evidence for Gaeta. Never mind that having evidence was prerequisite for the trail, they're smelling blood. One after the other, they're hammering down on the Chief until he relents and passes a "guilty"-verdict. 

Gaeta only survives this because Starbuck decides to be an even bigger arse than usual and tries to humiliate Gaeta before killing him, prompting the Chief to recognize that Gaeta in fact is the only reason anyone is here and alive - he's one of the greatest heroes, and they were about to flush him out the airlock. Gaeta at least had the good taste, albeit not the sense, to give them a despictable look and to decide not to take part in the charade like Jammer did. After the Chief releases Gaeta who then stumbles away, you can clearly read the total ethical collapse in his eyes. They all realize that the other thirteen they killed might as well have been innocent or at least not as guilty as they thought they were in the two minutes they gave each case before deciding the verdict. 

Look in the eyes of justice, Jammer.
The problem with all this is that we can't just dismiss it as an unbelievable storyline. We can't even dismiss it as a storyline. Things like this happen, and they happen all the time. If we didn't have a state of laws, we would still pass judgement like that. Everytime a child gets raped, everytime a crime happens that we as a society deem as especially outrageous, the demands to make away with fair trials, jurys and laywers grow like weeds. The difference between justice and revenge is a very slim one, and it is impossible to see it when you are personally engaged. That is why the judge and jury must always consist of people that have no personal stakes in the matter. Where you can't find such people, as in the case of a civil war, you might want to do what Roslin did later in the episode: issue a general pardon, because there is no chance anyway to ever get the thing wrapped up by the justice system. She decides to set up a commission to record personal stories, and to let history decide. Whether in the Reconstruction Period in America or after reunification in Germany, the idea of prosecuting those you defeated never led to the results originally intended. It is hard to abandon revenge, but it is the more sensible road, and Battlestar Galactica teaches us that.


  1. I might be alone here but I heavily sympathized with the kangaroo court. Real justice was impossible, but there has to be some punishment for siding with what in their world is the ultimate evil. They were dealing with people who voluntarily sided with a race that killed billions of people, most of whom were innocents, in an unprovoked attack. There has to be punishment for that, if only to underline the fact that there are consequences for being on the wrong side of the war. Even the most tolerant people in Europe, the Dutch, lined collaborators up against a wall once they were liberated in World War 2.

    We have certain rights because they are innate, because God or Nature or Reason endowed us with them. Life and Liberty are the most widely agreed upon. If a person violates the rights of others, than they have forfeited their own of these rights and society punishes them, call them Human Rights. We have other rights, rights to due process, fair trials, requirements for warrants, for the sole purpose of protecting rights such as Life and Liberty from being mistakenly taken away, I'd call those procedural rights. In a normal state of society, these rights are incredibly important, but during anarchy, or when an administration gains power that has no respect for Human Rights, than the defense of Human Rights has to take priority over respect for Procedural Rights. In essence, you try to make sure you're executing the right guy, but you aren't bound by the stringent standards of a peaceful time.

    1. The collaborators in WWII are a great example. There is nothing that allows you to simply line people against the wall for collaboration. Either you charge people publicly, or you don't. But just killing people out of vengeance? That can'tbe right. I understand the urge behind it, but that doesn't mean I can support stuff like that.
      And you can't deny Human Rights to people that violated Human Rights in order to save the Human Rights. That's utterly impossible. With lynching "justice" like this, you destroy civilization.
      The most terrifying aspect about the BSG "trials" is just how erratic the whole thing is. They convict people based on whether they like them or not, and their evidence is flimsy at best. There can be no way of knowing whether the guys they have really deserve the death sentence they hand out. This becomes especially stark in the case of Gaeta, but Jammer was a problem already. Who are they to pass judgement?

    2. The task fell to them, no one else was willing to punish collaborators (also the Vice-President commissioned the court). They convicted people by what they believed them to have done (which caused them to have feelings for or against them). Gaeta as an example is flawed, you could argue merely working for the Cylon administration in and of itself deserved punishment. The problem was when he was given the chance to speak for himself, he refused, up until Starbuck unwittingly goaded it out of him. Also the Dutch did accuse the collaborators publicly, then they shot them, often the person who shot them was the person who witnessed the crime.

      Civilization does not disintegrate because of harsh measures, the Dutch did not descend into anarchy because they killed collaborators. And you certainly can deny Human Rights at horrid times to protect the principle in general. Thats why Lincoln locked citizens up without trial in order to win the American Civil War, why the British invaded neutral Iceland to keep it out of Nazi hands, and why the Allies carpet bombed Axis cities.

      There are multiple justifications for punishing crime. To protect society, either through deterrence or by physically removing a person from society. But vengeance is certainly one of the reasons for punishment. Merely restraining Hitler, Osama Bin Laden or any number of serial killers isn't good enough. Vengeance in punishment demonstrates society's disdain for a person and his actions. Many people in the Free World wanted Ghaddaffi to go to the Hague to stand trial, where all his procedural rights would have been observed, but proper punishment for his crime was not on the table. His crimes were witnessed by an entire nation, by the world really, so some Libyan took justice in his own hands and gave him the punishment that a neutral world court would have balked at. To me, its much the same thing, taking the law into their own hands those citizens made it possible that the right answer, that justice would have been reached, whereas if they hadn't, justice would never have even been sought.

    3. Zarek knew exactly that what he was doing was wrong and wouldn't stand, that's why he kept it secret and limited. In BSG, they don't publicly accuse collaborators - they meet in secret, decide in secret and kill in secret. The final words are only a means to ease their conscience, not really the expectation to get something in favor of the accused out of it.
      And no, civilization does not immediately disintegrate. But it suffers from it for a long time. Today, the mass imprisonments of Japanese Americans in World War II is still a sore wound. And the occupation of Iceland can't be really compared here, because it wasn't an independent state back then anyway - it belonged to Denmark, which had been occupied by Nazis, so occupying Iceland basically restored and saved the liberty of the people there.
      The problem here was, too, that they imprisoned people and had no method of knowing whether they did anything wrong. They defied them essential human rights and, worse, didn't restore them afterward. Many Japanese Americans for example had lost their livelihood over the imprisonment, many died in the harsh conditions or suffered permanent damage. They didn't even get a trial, or an investigation, or an apology. We don't even know today whether it was necessary to do so.
      And the lynching of former leaders is just not the same as to condemn them in court. There can be no question to what fate Hitler would have awaited on trial - he would have been condemned to death, certain as sunrise. But the Nuremberg trials are a prime example here. Instead of just lining the Nazis up against the wall, they were charged and brought before court, and the judgements were differntiated - some got free, some were imprisoned, some were executed.
      The same should have been done in case of BSG, or the Netherlands, or Libya. There is no reason at all not to put these people where they belong. No court would have executed Jammer, especially not with Cally's testimony. He would have been punished for carrying out Baltar's orders, sent to prison most likely, but not killed. The same is most likely true for many others.

    4. The Nazis were horrid people, but many of the worst violated no laws. Hitler was law in Germany, he was elected and used the legal framework to gain power. Nuremberg was based on ex post facto laws, but we ignored that basic rule of justice because well, fuck Nazis. Other than Admiral Doenitz, the only other person I can recall who wasn't hung was Albert Speer, not because he wasn't in charge of slave labor, but because he said what the Court wanted to hear. Nuremberg was a show trial.

      The internment of Japanese Americans was in hindsight a bad idea, mainly because it was unnecessary. If the United States had lost the war, the people who raped Nanking would have ruled the Pacific, and Germany would have continued culling large fractions of humanity like vermin. If it hadn't of been so unnecessary would a few lost livelihoods really have been a horrid price to pay to ensure the Nazis didn't slaughter the entirety of Eastern Europe, not to mention what they would have done to the populace of Africa and other areas.

      You are right, Hitler would have been hung. If Ghaddaffi would have been captured, and taken to the Hague, like the Allied Powers wanted, the worst he would have faced was spending his last few years in a relatively comfortable cell. Thats not justice. In the case of BSG, a full trial of that many people would have consumed a great deal of the relatively little man power that civilization had left. What were they down to? 40,000? They did not have the time or the energy, they had to survive. I'd respond to the point about Jammer, but I honestly don't remember who he is.

      Anyway, I think our basic issue is that I'm proposing a utilitarian moral framework for decisions of justice when society is in jeopardy or has collapsed, while you are maintaining a more Kantian viewpoint. Smarter men than us have been unable to end that impasse.

    5. That's true.
      However, I have to object your points about Hitler and Nuremberg. Hitler was not elected, and he didn't act out of a legal framework. He staged a coup d'etat to get in power, and he used paragraphs as other people use clubs.
      The Nuremberg trials, on the other hand, could rest on legal framework, for example the Hague convention, the Geneva convention or the Briand-Kellogg-treaty. All of these were signed by Germany, and all violated.

  2. I really enjoyed reading all your BSG related esssys. Wish you would write more, since there's plenty of stuff to address.

    For one, I would love to hear your thoughts on The Resistance, whether or not it was even justified and/or successful in obtaining its objective -- and whether there could have been a better alternative to achieve the same goal.