Another Day Flies; Another Norm Dies

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Photo by Patrick Brinksma from Unsplash

I must get accustomed to defending the status quo.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’VE BEEN A PRACTICING PUNDIT ALL MY ADULT LIFE AND IT’S MY PRACTICE TO OWN MY ERRORS, WHETHER POINTED OUT BY OTHERS OR DISCOVERED ON MY OWN.

IN THIS PIECE, I EXPRESS THE OPINION THAT PRESIDENT DONALD JOHN TRUMP DID NOT INTEND TO EXPLICITLY THREATEN A WAR CRIME. WHILE I ASSERTED TWO REASONS FOR THINKING SO, MR. TRUMP SPOKE TO REPORTERS WITHIN 24 HOURS OF MY WRITING AND REMOVED ALL DOUBT. HE DOES INTEND TO THREATEN IRANIAN CULTURAL SITES.

HE POINTED OUT THAT IRANIANS KILL AMERICANS AND SAID OF PUTTING ANCIENT CULTURAL SITES OFF LIMITS FOR DESTRUCTION, “IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY.”

AMONG CIVILIZED NATIONS, IT DOES WORK THAT WAY.

HE APPEARS INNOCENT OF THE CONTROVERSIES FROM WWII. HITLER WAS A RUTHLESS OUTLAW, BUT ANCIENT CULTURAL SITES — WHETHER ON LAND CONTROLLED BY THE ALLIES OR BY THE AXIS — BELONG TO HUMANITY, NOT AN INDIVIDUAL NATION. BOTH SIDES VIOLATED THAT NORM BUT IT IS THE INTERNATIONAL CONSENSUS THAT OUR CULTURAL HERITAGE IS OFF LIMITS. REMEMBER THE REACTION WHEN THE TALIBAN BLEW UP ANCIENT BUDDHIST STATUTES? WE HAVE NOW PLACED THE USA ON A MORAL PLANE WITH THE TALIBAN.

I DID NOT THINK THIS WOULD EVER HAPPEN, BUT I WAS WRONG, GRAVELY WRONG, AND I DESERVE THE CREDIBILITY HIT I WILL TAKE. MEA MAXIMA CULPA.

I rode into electoral politics in my twenties being carried by the slogan, “Vote for a change.” When I got elected on my second try, I believed change to be my mandate. I rolled up my sleeves and attacked the practice of requiring cash bonds, which meant fighting with bailbondsmen. I had promised to do something about the black hole into which domestic violence assault cases had been disappearing, and that bit of change put me crosswise with a lot of the local justice system until the next election, when my emphasis on that issue was rewarded by the voters.

Since the national elections in 2016, I’ve spent so much time opposing changes I consider to be idiotic that it almost feels like I’ve switched sides. I have not. Protecting women from men’s fists and firearms is now an establishment position and when the Violence Against Women Act comes up for reauthorization we may have to fight about it again, but we are defending rather than attacking.

In 2016, the Electoral College gave us a president of the United States with no graduate level education and no experience in governing. Since then, he has governed like a bull who totes around his own china shop. He is ignorant of the norms in Washington and the few people he has hired who know the lay of the land have not lasted long or carried much influence. When Donald John Trump changes the way things have been done, he calls it “draining the swamp.”

In the past, it’s been called “cronyism” or an even more quaint term, “stealing.” We are getting to the point where public monies are no longer a salient issue. Stealing has never been on the same level with war and peace, the process of putting our military in harm’s way. Our soldiers, sailors, and airmen have sworn to defend us and civilian political oversight of foreign policy is supposed to guarantee we defend them.

The comity among the three branches of U.S. government has taken over 200 years to settle into customary behaviors that are not written down in law. Norms get developed based on what works over time and the possibility they could suddenly be disregarded is a thought that seldom crosses the minds of people who work in government or their theoretical supervisors, me and thee.

I began a recent Medium article addressed to Donald John Trump, “we need to talk before you go to war with Iran.” Medium readers can sniff out an attempted literary conceit, even a clumsy one, but when I made the attempt I was unaware that Mr. Trump had in fact neglected to have the conversations that are customary before perpetrating an act of war.

There is no way to spin the assassination of another nation’s highest ranking military officer as other than an act of war. His position in government, Mr. Trump should know and probably does not, changes the nature of the conversation after the charge is hurled that Qassem Soleimani was “a terrorist.”

Soleimani certainly was a terrorist in the sense that war is terrible, but his public position in the Iranian government forces discussion of the nature of asymmetrical warfare and whether he is guilty of innovative tactics or war crimes. Mr. Trump’s position on war crimes renders that discussion problematic for the U.S., and I am not speaking of his use of the pardon power to circumvent military justice. This article was, as usual, kick-started by a combination of the morning news and the government’s semi-official organ, Twitter.

The morning news started off with an announcement that we are deploying more of the 82d Airborne Division than was the case before we went to bed and the rest have been put on alert for possible deployment. This is not as big a deal as it appears because the 82d’s mission is rapid deployment and, for obvious reasons, troop movements are not required to be publicly announced. However, Mr. Trump had also fired up the Twitter Machine and announced that the U.S. military has

targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

Many commentators — this one included — were inclined to seize upon “sites…important to…the Iranian culture” and wonder out loud if this tweet that demands an end to threatening is on its face threatening a war crime. One thing gives me hope that Mr. Trump has not threatened a war crime: the probability reaches near certainty that our POTUS does not know that purposeful targeting civilian sites of great cultural significance is a war crime.

It’s also probable that if our military were ordered to target a site of recognized cultural value that had no military significance, then our military would refuse the order.

For those two reasons, I doubt that Mr. Trump intended to threaten a war crime, but he did put on another clinic in why policy by tweet is a bad idea.

THIS CONCLUSION TURNED OUT TO BE INCORRECT. SEE AUTHOR’S NOTE ABOVE.

Finally, there was a very important truth hidden under my attempt at a cute literary conceit. There really was a conversation that was customarily had before committing military forces, but it was of course not with me and I did not know that Mr. Trump had skipped it at the time I was writing.

It is customary to brief the so-called Gang of Eight, the leadership of the House and the Senate regardless of political party. Having neglected the customary briefing by cutting out the Democrats, it is hard to see how Mr. Trump can expect to rely on the other custom that the nation pull together when making war.

The question we will be asking — whether in 2020 or 2024 — is whether all the norms of political behavior Donald Trump has shattered now need to be enacted into law or whether there is some other way to repair all the shattered china left strewn about by this ignorant bull.

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Steve Russell is enrolled Cherokee, a 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus of criminal justice, and (so far) a cancer survivor.

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