September 2007 Archive
September 4, 2007
Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu recently surrendered to police in California. He was charged more than 15 years ago with grand theft and had been a fugitive since then. The authorities believed he had returned to Hong Kong, his country of origin.
We have all been confronted with theft either has a victim or as a friend or family member of a victim.
The experience is always traumatic and the reactions are diverse.
Is there an ideal way to deal with it and what are the values involved?
The most common and often the first reaction is one of anger. It is a legitimate one. Theft violates the principle of justice and fairness as well as the notion of property. The French socialist and political philosopher, Pierre Joseph Prudhon believed that property was theft. He strongly influenced his friend Karl Marx who wanted to abolish private property.
In consideration of the punishment for stealing we should not confuse the two different notions of vengeance and justice. Although the desire for vengeance or revenge is a legitimate emotion, in our society ruled by law, we have to limit ourselves to justice.
Guilt or innocence is not always easy to establish. Many inmates in our prisons claim and believe that they did nothing wrong and therefore do not deserve to be in jail.
It might be helpful to consider the circumstances that lead to the action. Our court system does take into account circumstances of defendants and sometimes considers the values of mercy and redemption.
In Victor Hugo's, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, an escaped convict steals silverware from the Bishop who had given him asylum for the night. He is caught by the police and brought back to the Bishop. The Bishop declares to the police officers, that the silverware they found in Jean Valjean's possession was, in fact, a gift he had made to him.
I am quite sure my Grandmother never read Les Miserables, but she once faced a similar situation. While my father, the owner of a private school in Switzerland, was absent, the deputy director of the school informed her that silverware was missing and that the police was on its way. She suspected one of the female employees and immediately went to her room, found the silverware and took it to her room. When the police arrived they found nothing. She later told my father: "I had a choice, one the one hand was silver and on the other was a soul." She showed compassion and I believe the employee never stole again. .
Finally, we should also consider that we might have been, in the past, personally involved in activities that could be considered theft. There are many forms of stealing, such as plagiarism, copyright infringement and the divulging of secrets. I believe that revealing a secret is a form of theft. It is disposing of something (information) that does not belong to you.
The Ethicist and Theologian Lewis B. Smedes once said: "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."
September 10, 2007
We will commemorate the 6th year anniversary of the 9/11 attack on Tuesday.
What have we learned from that catastrophe or maybe more importantly how have we changed since that "day of infamy."
These are important questions for each one of us to consider. The worst-case scenario in ethics is not to ask the questions at all.
We each will have different answers. I have learned that good can come from what was absolute evil. While the attack of innocent lives was reason to despair of humanity the spontaneous generosity and sympathy I witnessed at that time, as a Red Cross volunteer, give me hope.
While we are remembering the victims and their families and more or less aware that another attack could happen, the debate over the issue of liberty and privacy versus security is intense.
How much of our liberty are we willing to relinquish in exchange for our security? Where do we draw the line between giving the government all the information it needs (or wants) and defending our constitutional right to privacy?
This issue has always been a challenge for countries at war and we are at war.
Any extreme position on these issues is dangerous.
To prevent the government access to necessary information will facilitate another attack. The conclusion of the many studies and commissions on 9/11 were clear. The government failed in its gathering, sharing and interpreting of intelligence (information) and thus could not have prevented the attack.
However to relinquish our rights of privacy can be a threat to our liberty and democracy. Any government whose power is unchecked will create a police state none of us would want to live in.
I believe the answer is vigilance as public and private citizens. Vigilance in protecting both our democracy and freedom as well as in protecting our country against attacks.
As the author Pearl Buck once said:
"When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail."
September 17, 2007
If you had asked me about Alexis Debat, a week ago I would have told you that he was a consultant to ABC on terrorism, an executive with the Nixon Center, an advisor to the French Ministry of Defense as well as that he had a PhD from the University of the Sorbonne in Paris.
All of the above is now into question. Mr. Debat was fired by ABC, resigned from the Nixon Center, was never an advisor the to French Ministry of Defense, and never received his doctorate from La Sorbonne.
Recently an interview of Barack Obama was published under his name in the French magazine, Politique International. Another political web magazine in France, Rue 89, suspected it was fake and investigated. It was fake. Obama never granted the interview.
Did he make it all up? Not exactly, and that is what is interesting.
He hired a ghostwriter to conduct the interview, and submitted it to the paper believing that is was legitimate.
He did work for the Ministry of Defense, but the Ministry claims, as an intern, not as an advisor.
He did attend and completed his studies at La Sorbonne (his thesis is on the Sorbonne's Web site) but never received his diploma.
An investigation is being conducted that will hopefully reveal what is true and what was not. I suspect that we may be in a situation of exaggerations galore.
Exaggeration is very much part of our lives. Caricature is an art form of exaggeration. Advertising very often is an exaggeration of some kind. The FDA makes very sure pharmaceutical companies do not exaggerate by making false or unsubstantiated claims on both the benefits and the risks of the drugs they market.
We all have a tendency to embellish our accomplishments though we rarely exaggerate our shortcomings, (we usually find an excuse for them!)
Some say that it is OK to exaggerate on a resume, but not to lie. How can we distinguish between the two?
An exaggeration could be seen as matter of interpretation of facts while a lie is a deception with the intention to mislead.
It is a slippery slop between a "benign" exaggeration and an outright lie. The more one exaggerates, the closer one gets to lie.
As it is said in the Talmud: If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.
I am afraid that if Alexis Debat applies such mathematics, the result may well be close to zero.
Brian Ross, his boss at ABC and chief investigating reporter said that " he was very knowledgeable" about al-Qaeda and his information was spot on." But adds, "now everything he has done is called into question."
September 24, 2007
Iran's President Ahmadinejad, will be speaking at Columbia University today.
His presence on the campus is provoking a fury, in the media, and strong protest from students and lawmakers. More than 10,000 protesters are expected. The speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver said that he would consider reducing financial assistance to the University. Dov Hikind, assemblyman from Brooklyn suggests that Ahmadinejad be arrested when he sets foot on campus!
Those who support his visit believe he is entitled to free speech. They also believe that we can all benefit from listening to arguments in defense of position that we strongly oppose or even abhor. It is true that in our liberal democracy we value free speech and encourage the sharing of ideas, even when they are controversial.
But what about indecency, which is defined as an offence against recognized standard of propriety?
Anyone who denies the existence of the Holocaust, calls and plans for the destruction of Israel, supports Al Qaeda, politically, financially and militarily is not entitled to be given a forum at one of our most prestigious institution of learning.
John Coatsworth, the acting Dean of the Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs who sponsors this event said that he would have extended an invitation to Adolf Hitler if given the opportunity. Would he also extend an invitation to Osama bin Laden?
Is the president of Iran testing the limits of our democracy or just making a mockery of it? We know that in his country as in most Islamic regimes those values we cherish are totally suppressed.
President Ahmadinejad may benefit from our constitution and enjoy our freedoms thus he has a right to speak but we have a right to oppose his visit and not be subject to his views who cross the line, in my opinion, to what is acceptable and decent.
It is one thing to allow someone to speak, whatever that person wants to say, and quite another to invite that person to your home. Apparently and regrettably, Columbia University did not make the distinction.