Friday, August 5, 2011

Following Orders

"These, in the day when heaven was falling,

 The hour when earth's foundations fled,

 Followed their mercenary calling

 And took their wages and are dead."
               ---A.E. Housman from Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

I've been thinking about the pros and cons of following orders...actually, I've been thinking more about the "cons" of following orders.  This thinking has a lot to do with the interactions I had with Police and Coast Guards and U.S. Embassy Staff during my recent time in Athens as part of Freedom Flotilla II.

I think it's true that following orders can be a most dangerous step on a path leading--slowly, insidiously, perhaps inevitably--to the loss of personal honor, to the decline and fall of civilizations, to the perpetuation, crystallization of fear and loathing.  Following orders cows people.
            --from The papers of Mahrud ad Nil, 2006

The Greek Coast Guard Captain, whose vessel forced The Audacity of Hope to end its intended voyage to Gaza, yelled across an expanse of water to the Captain and Passengers standing on the bow of our boat that he was not in disagreement with our political views.
He was just following orders. 

The Greek Police who forced nine "fasters" to end our peaceful demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy in Athens explained, as they half-carried and gently dragged us into waiting patrol cars, that they were just following orders

The Police, in battle gear and gas masks, who used tear gas and batons to quel the People's Demonstration in Syntagma Square were only "following orders." 

Not all orders are worthy of being followed.  This is my strong belief. 

An anti-terrorist task force member, who paid a visit to the Police station where six of us were being detained for making an unscheduled visit to the home of the United States Ambassador to Greece, told us that, if he were given orders to kill, he would kill.  Oh, there was the caveat that he would not follow an illegal order.  What is an "illegal order"?  When someone--say a member of an anti-terrorist task force--is given a "legal" order to kill, does that killer know or care who is killed? What sort of person or target is killed?  A terrorist?  Can you imagine a context in which "terrorist" is just another name for "freedom fighter"?  
What part does fear play in these scenarios?

In some people, fear of not following orders, is worse than following certain orders--orders that one knows are wrong.  Sometimes the individuals giving orders are not honorable individuals.  Sometimes they have sacrificed their honor out of fear and intimidation and are "just following orders" from some higher order-giving authority.  (I am not suggesting God nor spirits nor even intuition.  Although from time to time we read accounts of people who, having "heard voices," feel compelled to obey the orders they are given and to commit some uncivilized act).  Sometimes "order givers" are afraid to fail to give the orders that they were ordered to give!  Order-givers, although often feared by order-takers are frequently fearful of their superior Order Givers.  What are the fears?  When are orders good?  When are they not?

Usually we don't know the true purpose of an order---for example: an order to fire on a group of peaceful unarmed or rock-throwing people.  We don't know why the orders are given to drop bombs and white phosphorous on an already debilitated community.  We justify.  We pass the buck.  Or, if we know, we don't know what to do or to say about that knowing.

Who gives the orders to the Members of The United States Congress? (...and we know that "orders" are given--along with consequences and threats.)  Is it fear or plain old intimidation that causes elected officials to vote against the best interests of their constituents?  Who instructs formerly decent men and women to cast their votes straight into the pockets of those who have the greedy goal to disempower the American citizenry? 

I was listening to a Bob Dylan song earlier today: "You're Gonna Have To Serve Somebody"  He's right.  But who, whom do we want to serve?  Those who would diminish our opportunities to live a life of peace...who would deny us the opportunity to drink clean water, breathe fresh air, eat untainted food?  Or to receive needed medical care?  Who is making these rules and making other people follow them?  Yes, we are "gonna have to serve somebody" but not just anybody! 

Not long ago, I refused to go through the "Naked X-Ray" security machine at the Albuquerque Sunport. "Why?" the guard asked.  "It's not dangerous...there's almost no radiation," he told me.  I was far less concerned about the radiation than I was in the invasion of my privacy.  For my safety?  Really?  I wanted to say---but didn't---"You think, because a few misguided/deranged people have succeeded in terrorizing or harming a few innocent people, that it's okay to make EVERYONE endure the demeaning, cattle-prodding treatment that is now an accepted everyday occurence for people needing to get from one city to another...people visiting their grandchildren, people going on their honeymoon, people on business?" 

Instead, I "moo-ved" on to the groping procedure:  A short, stocky matron was charged with the assignment of patting me down while two uniformed men watched.  She was nervous as she put on thin plastic gloves and recited the procedure we were about to share. "I will be touching your whole body, starting with your hair...I will use the back of my hands to..." I started to cry. "WHAT IS MY COUNTRY COMING TO?"  I exclaimed, as I held my arms out to the sides while she felt my breasts and my inner thighs.  "I'm a sixty-eight year old grandmother," I continued.  And then, while I reassembled myself, the matron said, in a very small voice, "I'm sorry. These are just my orders."

Who creates the system that causes everyday sensitive beings to perform acts against their better judgments?  I felt sorry for the matron...and I wondered, as I made my way to the gate to board a plane to some unnamed destination,  just how those Homeland Security employees felt about following orders...orders that turned innocent people into sheeple? Are these procedures really (I mean REALLY) about protecting travelers?  Are these rules and regulations put in place to save lives?  Or to sell Naked X-Ray machines?  It seems we are always ordering new machines to tamp down, discourage or end the free expression that once was a basic tenet of These United States. 

For many, in these difficult political and economic days, "following orders" is a two-edged sword.   For the officers on the Police Force and the Coast Guards--who forced our boat back to a US and Greek run Military Compound--following orders is simply (?) their job.  Sadly, these officers follow orders against their better political and philosophical judgement.  They cannot afford to lose their jobs. 

When The Audacity of Hope was forced to return to shore, our Captain and crew were arrested.  The Passengers couldn't leave; we were required to remain in the compound. When our ground team showed up that evening, at the big metal gates of the compound, they were prevented from joining us on the boat.  The guards were "just following orders."  Whose orders?  That night, we slept on the decks and in the lower cabin of our beloved boat.  All night it rocked ever so gently, moored (locked up) in the Coast Guard Compound. 

The next morning, I woke up early.  My fellow passengers were still sleeping.  I slipped off the Boat and wandered around the secure compound.  When I walked past one of the imposing Coast Guard boats, a door opened and a man appeared.  "KalimEra", I said.  He returned my greeting.  "You wouldn't happen to have any coffee would you?  Yes, he said.  A second passenger joined me and we gave our coffee preferences to the Coast Guard.  In a few minutes, he returned with coffee in two dainty china cups with blue, Picasso-esque peace birds on them.  We talked.

Syntagma Square

He acknowledged that he was one of the men on the Zodiac who participated in the forced return from our intended destination.  He drove the Zodiac that delivered the black clad "Ninja" warriors who then boarded the Coast Guard vessel and aimed their big guns at us.  He said he was on duty, following orders.  When he was not on duty, he said that he spent time in Syntagma Square in solidarity with those who were demonstrating against the harsh austerity measures being imposed on the Greek People by their government.  He "confessed" that he was "with" the people of Gaza in spirit---but he had to follow orders.  He had a wife and a mortgage and a child and his salary was being cut by "thirty-five to forty percent." He didn't know what to do.  He felt helpless.  He shared a painful personal incident with us:  While he was taking his four year old daughter for a walk, she saw a small toy in a store window. She wanted her Daddy to buy it for her.  He was ashamed, to the point of tears, because he couldn't afford it. 

He needs his job.

He has to follow orders... 

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