There are lots of reasons why it’s so hard to do the right thing and so much easier to just do nothing.
That’s why we have processes to protect people who report unlawful acts. Ensuring the safety of people who do the right thing by exposing lawbreakers encourages others to also speak up.
The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” goes back to the ancient Greek dramas, when battles were won or lost because no one would dare deliver accurate reports to a general who had beheaded the previous courier. Today’s messengers include “whistleblowers,” who pass potentially problematic information through proper channels about a situation or a superior. Even though it is usually a noble act, there is no complimentary synonym for “whistleblower.” It’s denigrated to the realm of partisan informant, leaker or tattletale.
This is not about “The Whistleblower” who reported questionable behavior in the Oval Office this past summer and might have single-handedly started this impeachment process. This is about three military officers who were involved in the deaths of civilian citizens of a foreign country, while in the service of ours. In two of these cases, the killings were so brazenly unlawful that even their platoon and squad members who witnessed the events considered it murder, fitting the definition of a war crime. And these officers, in their determination to conceal what they had done, lied about it or threatened anyone who might expose them.
Army Lt. Clint Lorance was convicted of the murder and attempted murder of three men in Afghanistan, after nine members of his unit testified against him. Maj. Matt Golsteyn was to be tried next year for allegedly murdering a suspected Afghan bomb-maker in 2010. And Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher was convicted of posing for photographs with a dead detainee, during a court-martial proceeding that exposed his attempted cover-up of other crimes by threatening to murder his fellow SEAL team members if they reported him.
Even as some of the evidence reflects the confusion and chaos of the scene, it exemplifies the process of whistleblowing that is considered so essential that it has its own system of protection in the military, much like in the government.
Last week, these three officers were pardoned by their commander-in-chief, who determined that the witnesses — the enlisted service members who dared to come forward to protect the law rather than to protect themselves — were not worthy of the same trust and confidence as the killers. Their words of testimony were demoted, dishonored and discharged. None of them was armed with anything other than the only firsthand, eyewitness version of the events.
As early as in basic training, the military teaches us to recognize an unlawful order, and that it is the expectation — and our duty — to disobey one. Obviously, that is difficult. To refuse an order can be a life-altering event, involving the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the press and, sometimes, the public — and this time, all the way up to the executive branch. It’s rarely done without the threat of reprisal of some sort at some level.
Pardoning these three was a display of antipathy toward those subordinates who refused orders to be complicit. They risked confronting an institution that has the power to punish and imprison them. This was not a “fragging,” or “the boys who cried wolf.” This was the moral dilemma depicted in modern Hollywood screenplays, our version of the Greek tragedies.
In a tweet, their commander-in-chief — our president — justified his pardons, saying that they should not be prosecuted for doing their job, since “we train our boys to be killing machines.” Having never served in the military in any capacity, he likely doesn’t realize that, no matter how low-level or mundane our job, we are also trained to know right from wrong.
The only “killing machine” here is the one who is shooting the messengers — the whistleblowers — who did the right thing by speaking up. By pretending to use his presidential pardoning power as an act of mercy, the message he sends is that there are no laws that can’t be broken, no situation that can’t be spun, no fact that can’t be falsified and no honor in honesty.
This is the person who calls the “so-called Whistleblower” a “spy.” This is the person who slanders every witness who dares to testify against him — even his former allies and subordinates — for not being perfect enough to expose his imperfections.
The parallel in these two stories is uncanny. If you don’t know what it takes to defy a superior, you’ve probably never done it yourself, even though every one of us has faced situations when we should have. On this national stage, we see what happens to those who speak up. They are disbelieved, discredited and destroyed.
And that’s the biggest reason why it’s so hard to the right thing, and so much easier to just do nothing.