2013-03-01

Why Is Temperance A Virtue?

Temperance (the ethical concept, not the anti-alcohol movement) is one of the traditional virtues identified by ancient Greek philosophers. One way to think of it is to say that temperance is the belief in not going overboard, or not letting your passions get out of control. We might also call it cool-headedness, or perhaps simply maturity.

I have been reluctant to comment on the situation in Bangladesh for fear of offending some of my regular readers, many of whom are much closer to the situation there than I am. I claim no expertise on that situation.

However, the situation has reached a grim breaking point. At this point, it would be somewhat immoral of me to say nothing about this important situation merely because I am related to Bangladeshis.

What I've Been Able To Figure Out So Far
Some time ago, the Bangladeshi ruling government (Bangladesh has a Parliamentary system) decided to prosecute members of an opposition party for war crimes pertaining to the 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence. By most accounts, the people who were prosecuted were indeed guilty of atrocious war crimes.

Perhaps the country needed to confront the realities of the war crimes committed in 1971, or perhaps this young South Asian country remains significantly politically unstable. After all, for a large part of their recent history as an independent state, they have been ruled by a military dictator, their Parliamentary democracy having been restored only a few years ago. To make matters worse, it is one of the world's most infamously destitute countries, one with a lot of political corruption, crime, religious orthodoxy, over-population, pollution, and...

Well, one can hardly be surprised that reopening the wounds of the 1971 civil war would ignite passions in a country rife with political unrest. The people took to the streets to demand capital punishment for the war criminals.

At first, the "protests" were peaceful. (I have a difficult time calling them protests, since they were really a mass of people calling for the execution of a small number of criminals. There was nothing to protest against, per se. It was more of a public request.) Eventually (and predictably), the civil discord grew into small-scale riots. Some were killed, many were injured, many were arrested.

Throughout the situation, the Bangladeshi people remained united in the idea that this "movement" was about more than capital punishment, that it was a nationalist movement about Bangladeshi pride.

Eventually, the government satisfied the people's demands, but in order to do so, they had to change the Bangladeshi constitution to enable the accused to be sentenced to the death penalty.

Now, supporters of the accused are causing their own batch of civil unrest.

Some Perspectives From Far Away
Critics of the "movement" are saying, according to The New York Times, that "the case brought against [the war criminals] was politically motivated and tainted by judicial irregularities." Analyzing the situation from my armchair here in the United States, I can't help but feel that the movement was incredibly misguided and hasty.

Think about it: If the war criminals were given a fair trial, then why would the government need to make changes to the country's very young constitution? These changes did not pertain to administrative details - they were designed solely to allow the government to claim a power it did not previously have, to allow the government to kill the war criminals... Who, by the way, just happen to be active members of the opposition party.

If the movement wanted to avoid political controversy, they could easily have avoided creating the appearance of political corruption - something that is, in fact, an every-day feature of the Bangladeshi government anyway.

In short, it is difficult for a white man in the United States to consider this "movement" to be anything more than a political tactic waged by the ruling party. From my vantage point, the ruling party stirred-up the old, forgotten passions of Bangladeshi nationalism to dispose of the political opposition.

The problem here is that the accused were, in all likelihood, truly war criminals. Therefore, we are faced with a situation in which "both sides" can claim to be in the right, for precisely the reasons they claim to be.

Back To Temperance
The problem with any mob is that emotions get hot and start to crowd-out patient, rational thought processes.

Logic would suggest that having war crimes tribunals is a necessary step for a healing country, but would also ask: Why now? Why suddenly? Is doing such a thing under this particular set of circumstances the best way to handle the situation?

Logic would suggest that all guilty parties be punished to the full extent of the law, in order to facilitate a general sense of justice, but would also ask: Is a mob of people calling for nothing more than the death of their fellow citizens really in the right headspace to weigh the pros and cons of their actions? Is changing the constitution really the right way to go about dealing punishment?

I feel that if the Bangladeshi people had acted with more restraint then most of the violence could easily have been avoided. And yet, at the same time, what can anyone expect from a process of ripping the bandages off a very young and very deep wound? Sometimes playing with our strongest passions results in very unexpected and unpleasant consequences.

I hold out hope for the Bangladeshi people as they deal with these issues, and I urge them to maintain a strong sense of temperance. Wisdom comes from sober reflection, patience, and analysis. That is not to say that there is no place for the heart in such considerations, but it is the folly of youth to get carried away by our passions.

At all times, people must maintain a sense of temperance to avoid making difficult situations much worse. Haste makes waste, as the saying goes. When confronting life's most difficult problems, we must lean on the strength of our mind, on our resolve and wisdom. In absence of that, we are nothing more than a passionate mob caught in a feedback loop.