Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tainted honour

It's hard not to get all emotional about the charges laid against the NSF who blew the whistle upon witnessing animal cruelty in his army camp. His dad is apparently so upset, he posted his outrage against the army for disciplining his son for what should be seen as a heroic act. "There was no honour [Facebook login required] in the way this situation was handled by the Singapore Armed Forces", he complains bitterly to the online community.

While I am against animal cruelty (barring the cruelty done to animals that provide nice, juicy steaks; sausages; bacon and other yummy stuff, the origins of which we'd rather remain blissfully ignorant of) this entry is not about that. It's about how the concept of 'honour' has been twisted into a bad argument posted by the distraught dad above in commenting on his son's plight.

The boy is being charged on two counts: shooting photographic images in a location that prohibits photography; and providing information to a party who has no privilege of access to such information.

Security of information is a key protocol which the military will rabidly uphold. Wars are won and lost over control of information. Dad's argument is that the content of the information provided by his son would not have compromised military security and therefore should not constitute a breach of security protocol in both the acquisition and the delivery of said information to the third party.

Dad is wrong on both counts. The law prohibits the action regardless of the sensitivity of the information breached. The charge is therefore against the action, and only in deliberating mitigating circumstances will the content of the information in question be considered. Hence the organization is not conducting itself dishonourably in prosecuting someone who has clearly broken the law.

But on the other hand, did the son act honourably in doing what he did? There is honour in standing up for one's convictions. His act was noble in intent, and for that he deserves credit. But an individual's honour goes deeper than that. Honour is in upholding the law of the land first and foremost. If one's personal convictions necessitates the breaking of the law, that does not absolve one from facing the consequences of one's actions. Given this untenable situation, the honourable thing for the son to do is to acknowledge that in order to do the right thing, he had to do the wrong thing, and accept the punishment for it. Colloquially, he did the crime, so he must do the time. In principle, two wrongs do not make a right.

The other factor to consider is if the son's actions were, in fact, necessary. Did he have to shoot video, and did he have to pass the video on to a third party, and did he know she would likely have politicized it the way she did? Was it his intention, in the first place, to politicize the information he passed on? The video is now for public viewing here [also requires Facebook login]. What it shows is a dog tied up by its neck, its head suspended by the tautness of the rope. Its weight is supported by the floor, so while it may look uncomfortable, it isn't being deliberately strangled unless it struggles against its bonds.

Clearly the boy had already decided to disobey orders by shooting video and distributing it through unauthorized channels. If he was going to disobey orders, then wouldn't it have been more necessary at the time to place the dog in a more comfortable position by re-tying the rope that held it? Did he leave the dog that way the whole night after he shot the video? In other words, if he wanted to alleviate the suffering of the dog, there were more immediate and practical options than turn to his phone-camera for a more sensational solution.

Of course, this is the army we're talking about. This is the kind of social organization that makes a business out of treating people worse than animals, so its approach to perceived threats to its operational capability usually leans towards the brutally effective. If the boy intended to instigate an investigation and force a change in tactics by eliciting public awareness and opinion, he's done a great job. The strays will probably be treated better now. So he should complete his honourable act by taking his punishment like a man. Much respect if he does; no respect if he attempts to squirm his way out of it.

And, Dad, your son's actually a grown man. He made a mature decision, so stop embarrassing him with your overprotective indignation. You should be proud of what he did, and not undermine his heroism by sending the wrong message that whistleblowers should be exempted from prosecution if in blowing their whistle they break the law.

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