Zalmay Khalilzad, currently United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has come under fire for engaging in extensive and “unauthorized” contact with Asif Ali Zardari, widower to Benazir Bhutto and Pakistani presidential hopeful. Anonymous officials have told the press that Khalilzad has been making several phone calls a week to Zardari and planned an upcoming meeting between the two. Zardari himself apparently informed other State Department officials that he was receiving “advice and help” from Khalilzad.
The rub is that the United States has adopted an official stance of neutrality in the succession scrum that has taken hold in Pakistan in the wake of Pervez Musharraf’s resignation from Pakistan’s executive office last month. In an e-mail message to Khalilzad (and subsequently leaked to the media), an apparently exasperated Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard A. Boucher complained, “We have maintained a public line that we are not involved in the politics or the details. We are merely keeping in touch with the parties. Can I say that honestly if you’re providing ‘advice and help’? Please advise and help me so that I understand what’s going on here.”
Khalilzad entered a plea of friendship to the charges. According to the ambassador’s spokesman, the two “planned to meet socially,” not to guide or prepare Zardari for the impending presidential scrum in Pakistan.
Government officials and citizens who maintain informal relationships with foreigners that threaten to compromise national security or America’s strategic interests tend to run afoul of ethical (and legal) scruples associated with treason. Helping a friend at the cost of one’s nation would seem to violate an ethical commitment stemming from the fundamental obligations we hold as citizens, protected and sheltered by a constitutional order.
Assuming for the moment that Khalilzad’s conduct does not threaten American strategic interests, his friendship with Zardari may still be inappropriate.
Earlier this week, Chinese officials detained six Americans for protesting Chinese rule in Tibet. This is the latest round of aggressive action taken against foreigners during the Olympics. As the New York Times details:
Two photographers at the scene for The Associated Press were also roughed up and taken into custody, according to news agency reports and press freedom advocates. After the photographers were questioned separately for 30 to 40 minutes, the police confiscated the memory cards from their cameras.
In the past month, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China has received dozens of complaints from overseas journalists who were detained, trailed or had equipment damaged by the police.
Chinese citizens have also felt the government’s heel during these games. Although the regime invited discontented citizens to apply for official permission to protest within designated areas, not a single application has been approved as the government claims that they opted to simply address the concerns of aggrieved parties. In a bizarre and disturbing twist, two women who ignored the regulations and protested against displacement from their homes to facilitate redevelopment were sentenced to “re-education” in a labor camp. Both of the women are in their late 70s.
China’s repressive approach to free expression does not come as news to outside observers (or its own citizenry). Despite assurances that the Olympics would herald a new era of openness in the communist government, was awarding the games to China tantamount to complicity in its authoritarian tactics?
Twelve years ago Jeffery Lee Wood sat in a truck outside a convenience store in Kerrville, Texas. Inside, his partner and roommate, Daniel Reneau, shot and killed Kriss Keeran, a cashier on duty at the store that evening. The killing, both say, happened because the robbery did not go according to the original plan. Reneau was executed for his crime in 2003 and, unusually, Wood also faced the death penalty, although he did not enter the store until after Keeran had been slain and did not himself inflict harm on anyone.
Wood’s case raises a number of complicated issues involving punishment. His lawyers and family have long argued that he suffers from a learning disability and is highly open to suggestion, which they believe made him uniquely vulnerable to Reneau. They also claim that he suffers from delusions. The initial trial record bears these assertions out. The first jury to hear Wood’s case judged him incompetent to stand trial. He was sent to a mental hospital until a second jury reversed this decision and deemed him competent to stand trial. Still, his behavior in trial was odd and he tried unsuccessfully to represent himself and subsequently commanded his appointed counselors not to cross-examine any witnesses. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.
In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled definitively in Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional for states to execute “mentally retarded” persons. The court has yet to hand down consistent rulings on the other issue at question in the Woods case—whether it is constitutional to execute someone who did not actually commit murder. As the Washington Post explains:
If the execution moves forward, Wood, 35, will become only the eighth person to be put to death as an accomplice since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. More than 1,100 people have been executed during this period. The executed accomplices do not include those who were put to death for hiring someone to commit murder.
The court has historically reversed course on this issue. It ruled in 1982 that imposing the death penalty on someone who did not actually commit a murder – or “intend that a killing take place” – constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In a 1987 case, however, the court said that, if someone was a “major participant” in the eventual crime, such an act could count as grounds for execution.
American sentencing practices reflect a preference for what is called ‘proportional justice.’ Not all offenders commit equivalent crimes, and we punish accordingly. We hand out citations for traffic offenses, throw people in jail for several months if they commit violent assault, send them to prison for years if they commit murder and, in some states, sentence them to death for what we consider especially heinous crimes (often involving multiple murders or some kind of sexual assault).
Debates over whether we have the right to harm ourselves often focus on especially serious cases, such as physician-assisted suicide. But an equally robust debate over self-harm involves ‘vice,’ such as gambling, smoking and drinking. The pendulum of American attitudes on vice has swung from extreme regulation and repression in the beginning of the 20th century, to an attitude more tolerant of free choice in today’s world. Although gambling remains high circumscribed throughout the country, alcohol is widely permitted under a scheme restrictions regarding age and location.
Smoking, on the other hand, has witnessed a different history of regulation. Once hardly encumbered by governmental interference, smoking now endures age and location prohibitions in addition to heavy taxation. Yesterday, the United States House of Representatives took a major stride in increasing government authority over smoking by approving a measure to place tobacco products under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the legislation would not allow the FDA to remove nicotine from tobacco products or halt the manufacture and sale of tobacco products, it would permit federal authorities to reduce the quantities of nicotine in tobacco products and also require the removal of other potentially carcinogenic ingredients.
What does this say about the freedom to engage in what most agree is a harmful activity?