Deserter: Heroic Counterpoint?

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“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
- Bob Dylan
Michelle Shephard, writing in the Toronto Star, reports that Peter Jemley has fled the U.S. Army and is currently seeking refuge in Canada.  He wants Canada to accept him as a refugee from the U.S. military because he is opposed to torture.

Jemley, who has a wife and two young children, ages 8 and 3, in Tacoma, Washington, was one of only a small number of Arabic linguists with top security clearance in the U.S. Military.  With his unique set of skills and his security clearance, Jemley believes he could be forced to violate international law by being ordered to participate in interrogations of terrorism suspects; interrogations conducted using illegal torture techniques.

Last February, Jemley became aware the U.S. government had sanctioned new rules on the treatment of suspected terrorists and the interrogations in which he might be ordered to participate.  Jemley, like many Americans, considers the new rules to be torture and, as such, a violation of international law.

After his discovery, Jemley fled to Canada and has petitioned the Canadian government for refuge.  His is the first such case to find its way into the Canadian legal system.

Until Jemley’s case, Canada had largely been able to sidestep the debate about torture and the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies.  Other cases of deserters in Canada have focused on the larger question of the legality of the Iraq war.  Now, though, Canada may be forced to take a position regarding the United States’ treatment of suspected terrorists.  According to Jemley’s lawyer, in deciding Jemley’s case, Canada must now decide whether the U.S. administration has sanctioned torture.

By taking this step, Peter Jemley has followed his conscience and has forever altered the lives of his entire family.  He has also forced the Canadian government into a position of either supporting or decrying U.S. sanctioned torture.

If Canada denies Jemley refuge, he will be sent back to the United States where, in all likelihood, he will face a military court martial, the result of which may be a jail sentence and a dishonorable discharge.

On the other hand, if Canada grants Jemley refuge, his family will be forced to relocate to Canada and he will never be able to safely return to the United States.

Jemley has stated, “I’m not afraid to be deployed.  I’m not afraid to die, (but) I’m ashamed about what’s going on.”

It’s easy for us to shower heroic accolades on someone who endured what John McCain endured and, clearly, it is impossible for anyone to say that John McCain is unpatriotic.  But John McCain achieved hero status through no decision of his own.  Given a choice, he undoubtedly would have chosen to avoid being shot down and to avoid spending time as a prisoner of war.

Peter Jemley, on the other hand, has made a conscious choice to refrain from doing what he believes is not right.  Except for the physical torture, Jemley’s path will be every bit as life altering as was John McCain’s.

Many in the United States will call Jemley a “coward” or “traitor,” but his bold decision demands that all of us reflect on the actions of our government.  We must ask ourselves whether we can condone the torture of any individual; whether we can support the violations of international law perpetrated by our government; and whether or not we can reconcile the breakdown in our government’s moral principles with our own personal moral code.

He won’t receive public accolades, but in my book, Peter Jemley’s exercise of conscience makes him every bit as much a hero as John McCain. 

2 Comments to ‘Another Kind of Hero’:
 on 10 Sep 2008 at 8:28 am: 1
You need to do a bit more research on Peter Jemley before you declare him heroic.

I respect your opinions on the war and on John McCain (while I disagree with them), but SPC Jemley is not a guy you want to hold up. He’s a liar and an opportunist.

Dennis Perkinson
 on 10 Sep 2008 at 10:19 am: 2
While Sig makes some reasonable points and, obviously, has first hand knowledge regarding Peter Jemly while my knowledge is third hand, I stand by my view that the stated reasons for Jemley’s seeking refuge in Canada should force us all to take a hard, introspective look at what those reasons say about the state of the United States. It may be that Jemley, himself, is less stellar than I have painted him, but the issues of torture and moral deception by the U.S. government are just as real, and just as abominable as my article states.

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