The tribute vice pays to virtue

by John Quiggin on May 29, 2021

Unsurprisingly, the forced grounding of an airliner flying over Belarus, and the arrest of a critical journalist on board has provoked a burst of whataboutery from Russia and a reciprocal round of ‘false equivalence’ from the West.

The parallel case is that of the forced landing of the Bolivian presidential plane, with President Evo Morales on board, on the basis of the false suspicion that it was also carrying Edward Snowden. The grounding, at the behest of the Obama Administration, was carried out by European governments (France, Spain, Portugal and Italy) which refused to allow the plane transit through their air space. Faced with the risk of running out of fuel, the plane landed in Austria, and was eventually allowed to proceed. This conduct was of a piece with Obama’s general willingness to take extreme measures against whistleeblowers.

The parallels supporting the whataboutery are obvious. The false equivalence claim has two parts.

The first is that the plane is not a commercial airliner and therefore not covered by the 1944 Chicago convention (IIRC). This is absurd. Does anyone think that an attempt to commandeer Air Force One with the President on board would be treated less seriously than in the case of a commercial airliner. The fact that something so silly would be put forward in defence is an indication of bad faith.

The second point, that a mere denial of access is less serious than the use of a fighter plane is superficially plausible but collapses on brief inspection. The effect of denying access was that Morales pilot had three choices: a forced landing, turning back and risking running out of fuel, or disregarding the denial of access and flying on. There is a routine response to an unauthorised entry into airspace, namely deploying a fighter plane to approach the aircraft in question. So, the only difference between the two cases is that Belarus sent its fighter into the air, while the Western Europeans could leave theirs on the ground.

But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. European governments are quite right to prohibit flights over Belarus, and to extend the same sanction to Russia if Putin chooses to escalate the dispute. And they apologised for their actions in the Morales case. But the US, while effectively admitting its responsibility, has never apologised for this act of state terrorism.

Strikingly, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki who was in the State Department in 2013 was the US spokesperson in both cases.

{ 35 comments }

1

MisterMr 05.29.21 at 8:19 am

“And they apologised for their actions in the Morales case”

The question arises whether european governments are responsible of their actions and to what degree they can just shift the blame on big bro USA.

Will european countries at some point be willing to oppose the USA on those cases of power projection? Would this be good or bad?

2

nastywoman 05.29.21 at 9:30 am

BUT I can’t stand these ‘false ‘false equivalencies’ anymore –
as the real difference between the Belarus and the Morales case IS:
What was done to ‘the critical journalist’ AFTER he got taken off the plane.
And it is one of the best – current – examples that there is a HUUUGE difference between ‘Fascistic Right-Wing Racist Regimes’ -(or Idiots) – supposedly doing ‘the same’ as European Democracies.

As in the cases of ‘Fascistic Right-Wing Racist Regimes’ –
supposedly – doing ‘the same’ as some ”Liberals” – there are ALWAYS such horrific damages if ‘Fascistic Right-Wingers’ –
supposedly – doing ‘the same’.

And I know I repeat myself – BUT I – we – are fighting these idiot equivalencies ever since Glenn Greenwald declared Obama to be ‘the same’ as Bush.
And if somebody like ‘Tucker Greenwald’ nowadays is still trying to compare ‘the Hypocrisy of Liberals’ to ‘the Hypocrisy of Racist Science Denying Right-Wingers’ he completely forgets the completely different quality between the two Hypocrisies.

And such Nonsense needs to –

STOP!

Right?
(-Wing)

3

Ray Vinmad 05.29.21 at 9:50 am

Thanks for reminding everyone about this shameful incident and for laying out the details so clearly.

You’re correct that this would be the tribute vice pays to virtue Of course, it’s also an excellent lesson in why it is wise to exercise restraint in these cases. (There are many reasons for exercising restraint besides the fact that it can come back to bite you but this is also a good reason.) As I recall, the reasons for this ‘act of state terrorism’ were very weak but one can imagine certain things driving this folly that it might be useful to understand.

4

Justin 05.29.21 at 11:46 am

It’s intellectually dishonest to argue against the false equivalency of having the planes downed while simultaneously equating Snowden and Protasevich. Let’s deal with that false equivalence for a second.

Snowden checks notes took a job as a contractor, after being let go by the state, to steal secret information. What did he leak? Things which were authorized by Congress, two Presidents, and 15 federal judges. It’s highly unlikely that his actions would be considered “whistleblowing” by any federal court, as he didn’t in any way follow the procedures defined in law to protect federal employees who blow the whistle on illegal programs.

Plus there’s that whole “only gave journalists less than 5% of the documents he stole”; you know, that 1.5 million classified documents thing, many/most completely unrelated to any domestic surveillance (not that Snowden would know this, of course, as he stole tons of documents he didn’t even read, which kind of undercuts the “shining light on illegal activities” defense). Completely unrelated to PRISM, nominally the thing he was trying to blow the whistle on.

And what did he do after whistleblowing stealing 1.5 million classified documents? He ran and sought the protection of autocrats. Again, not a whistleblower, definitely not a journalist.

Let’s move on to Protasevich. He… distributed information about the suppression of protests against an autocrat who rigged an election. An autocrat who responded to such protests with things like systematic beatings, torture, and sexual assault. Recall, the “loser” of that election now lives in exile in the EU.

For all its faults, the US has an independent legal system: the conventional judicial independence measure used in research rates it during the time in question as 0.99 (on a 0–1 scale); Belarus’ most recent rating is 0.17. Snowden could offer a robust defense for his actions if he chose to. Protasevich doesn’t have the equivalent of Belarusian ACLU lawyers, wealthy benefactors, and celebrities to ensure his “trial” has any semblance of fairness.

False equivalence much?

5

steven t johnson 05.29.21 at 2:11 pm

The Sigonella case is parallel in ways in which the Morales case is not. The starting point here assumes a precision in the analogy that does not obtain.

Further, the magnitude of the sanctions should upon the magnitude of the offense, not because the offender is already a designated enemy.

It is unclear how this has anything to do with vice paying homage to virtue. Hypocrisy is vastly overrated as a sin, because the virtue it defies, sincerity, is so cheap it shouldn’t count for much. (Sincerity can always be purchased with a little self-deception, which is why people’s accounts of themselves should not be accepted without caution.) The substance of the homage in this case is support for a fascist. How this is a virtue escapes me. Again, I do not approve of black renditions and other abuses of international aviation. But to die on this hill?

Incidentally, this is a striking practical example of nationalist versus cosmopolitan ideals, closely associated with the Bertram social democracy thread.

6

Ebenezer Scrooge 05.29.21 at 3:02 pm

When I was a wee tad, I fought against some of the crazier excesses of the academic left because I thought they fueled the Rush Limbaughs of the world. When I grew older, I learned that El Rushbo didn’t need any steenkin’ facts. I shouldn’t have bothered.

Similarly here. What the US did to Morales was wrong because it was wrong. That the Russians would weaponize it is irrelevant. Russia doesn’t need an uncomfortable parallel to find a “whatabout.” There is ALWAYS a whatabout to be found, if you’re clever enough.

7

mark green 05.29.21 at 3:31 pm

“There are many reasons for exercising restraint besides the fact that it can come back to bite you but this is also a good reason.”

That would be the case if one posits that had it not been for Snowden, Lukashenko would not have dared to do this. It’s a counterfactual, so we’ll never know… but given he’s pretty much imprisoned every independent journalist, tortured every dissident, etc., positing such restraint on his part is passing strange.

One might more reasonably posit, based on the last two decades, that there is ALWAYS some prior equivalency the West has done to justify (Bela)Russian behavior.

8

steven t johnson 05.29.21 at 5:14 pm

PS 1) A dusty but relevant comparison is the Trent affair.
2) Strictly speaking, an email making a bomb threat was a ruse, and the pilot was not forced down by the fighter escort. At this point it’s not even proved who sent the email. Fascists like Protasevich have enemies in other quarters than Belarus.

9

Gorgonzola Petrovna 05.29.21 at 8:02 pm

For the Morales case, another difference is that his flight was interrupted by Europeans, not the US where Snowden was indicted. I’d like to see Snowden flying commercial over a US territory tomorrow. I’d like to see what happens to that flight. Wanna bet? The European countries involved, however, had no excuse. Assuming they are independent countries.

Anyway, speaking of Protasevich now. Come to think of it, something’s wrong with an indicted criminal, charged with a very serious crime, flying over the country where they are indicted (internet tells me that treaties defining the jurisdiction are complicated). You’re hiding from the law — so, hide. I’d suggest that airlines should check, and refuse to board, in this situation.

10

heckblazer 05.29.21 at 11:21 pm

There is a third point. Belarus deliberated lied to the pilots about there being a terrorist threat against the flight. Deliberating lying to aircrews is against international treaties Belarus has signed, and it’s forbidden for damn good reason.

11

John Quiggin 05.29.21 at 11:49 pm

Justin: So, hijacking planes is fine, provided it’s to capture the right kind of person. Or am I misreading you?

12

J-D 05.30.21 at 1:18 am

I read the Wikipedia articles titled ‘Ryanair Flight 4978’ and ‘Evo Morales grounding incident’ and among the differences between the two cases one that strikes me was the contrast between the effectiveness of the skulduggery of the Belarusian government and the ineffectuality of the actions of the governments implicated in the earlier incident. The Belarusian government did succeed in seizing Roman Protasevich (and I have no doubt this was the goal of their actions). Edward Snowden was not, in fact, aboard Evo Morales’s plane, but it’s not clear that he would have been seized from the plane even if he had been; it’s not clear that the refusals of entry into airspace were intended as part of a plan designed to lead to the seizure of Edward Snowden, but if they were then it was not a well-thought-out plan to that end (and if they were not part of such a plan, they were also not part of any other well-thought-out plan).

In case it’s not clear, I don’t offer this observation as a defence of the conduct of the governments implicated in the grounding of Evo Morales’s plane; the assertion ‘We are not good plain crooks’, even if true, has no exculpatory value. Disorganised crime is still crime.

13

nastywoman 05.30.21 at 6:14 am

@
‘Justin: So, hijacking planes is fine, provided it’s to capture the right kind of person. Or am I misreading you’?

and even if I wasn’t asked – I don’t think hijacking planes is fine, provided it’s to capture the right kind of person –
Comparing the two cases is just a very false equivalency.

14

Chris Bertram 05.30.21 at 6:59 am

If we look beyond narrow cases involving planes, parallels where states were prepared to violate international norms, including the territorial integrity of other states, to punish their enemies are rather numerous. Recently, we have Russia’s poisonings in the UK, but there’s also the Vanunu kidnapping, the Rainbow Warrior, the Soleimani assassination, and so forth. Deterrence of refugees by Australia also involves the interception of boats in international waters. Does anyone imagine that if were the US to discover that Assata Shakur was on a plane from Cuba to the Canada, and so within US airspace, they wouldn’t force it down?

15

J-D 05.30.21 at 8:52 am

Is it better if vice does pay tribute to virtue, or is it better if vice does not pay tribute to virtue?

16

John Quiggin 05.30.21 at 11:08 am

@15 The quote implies, and I agree, that it’s better if vice pays tribute.

17

nastywoman 05.30.21 at 11:29 am

@
‘the assertion ‘We are not good plain crooks’, even if true, has no exculpatory value’

Perhaps the assertion:
‘We are NOT Torturing Right-Wing Racist Crooks?

18

JimV 05.31.21 at 2:42 am

My uniformed opinion of President Obama’s many disappointing actions is that a strong motivation was to bend over backwards to appease the right wing so they had no factual basis to claim a black President was too radical for main stream America. In other words, he may have asked himself, what would Reagan have done (policy-wise), and in many cases tried to go at least part way there.

If true, it would be hard for me to fault him for this, except in a few instances. It may have kept him from being assassinated, in the worst case, or at least from armed insurrections. As I understand it, many black parents here encourage their children to kowtow to right-wing authorities for the same reason. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, but it might make it a closer call.

I am probably over-estimating this, but I did get that feeling several times during his presidency.

19

J-D 05.31.21 at 12:43 pm

The effect of denying access was that Morales pilot had three choices: a forced landing, turning back and risking running out of fuel, or disregarding the denial of access and flying on. There is a routine response to an unauthorised entry into airspace, namely deploying a fighter plane to approach the aircraft in question. So, the only difference between the two cases is that Belarus sent its fighter into the air, while the Western Europeans could leave theirs on the ground.

It seems that Ryanair Flight 4978 was forced to land in Belarus, whereas it’s not clear that the governments whose actions drove Evo Morales’s plane to land were able to control where it landed (they certainly didn’t force it to land in their own territory). Whether this difference is a morally significant one is a question on which I don’t feel equipped to venture an opinion, but it seems to have been of considerable practical significance (see my earlier comment).

20

roger gathmann 05.31.21 at 5:48 pm

This is a very good parallel, and in both instances the states involved should be found guilty by international court, which should reinforce rules that prevent the detaining of planes on these grounds. The problem is that Belarus can be boycotted, and the people made more miserable, for the criminal actions of their president, but alas, the U.S. is immune to boycotts – which will never happen anyway – because the central crime behind the U.S. is the accumulation of a massive and unlimited military capacity. That has had murderous consequences for populations around the globe. It means that an open policy of assassination, which caused a scandal in the 70s when it was revealed that the CIA was doing it, is given a pass by a numbed American population and the rest of the world, which can’t do anything about it.

21

Gorgonzola Petrovna 05.31.21 at 7:56 pm

22

Chetan Murthy 05.31.21 at 11:48 pm

JimV @ 18: “I am probably over-estimating this”

Heh, I don’t think you are. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that Obama made it “safe” for white people to vote for a Black man for President. He wrote about this at great length, and it’s basically the same thing you’re saying. You don’t make it safe for White people to vote for you, by talking about reparations. Or telling GrOPers that they can pound sand.

23

stubydoo 06.01.21 at 3:12 am

Perhaps we could poke at the question of false equivalency a bit more, considering not just the tactic of diverting a plane but also the question of who the targeted passenger is (as brought up above): what if they diverted a commercial flight based on intelligence that a disguised Osama Bin Laden was hidden on board?

24

John Quiggin 06.01.21 at 6:02 am

@23 Using the actual history to poke a bit further, the CIA posed as a polio vaccination team to get closer to bin Laden, with predictable consequences

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/pakistan-polio-vaccination-team-militants-ambush-two-dead-islamic-extremism-cia-osama-bin-laden-latest-a8261931.html

In your hypothetical, the alternative is to attempt to arrest/kill him when the plan lands. Forcing the plane down mid-flight implies that the target is not viewed as a criminal by the government in the destination country.

25

John Quiggin 06.01.21 at 6:05 am

Last para also applies to those in comments above referring to Protasevich as an “indicted criminal”. Any government (or even anyone claiming to be a government) can indict anybody. Hijacking aircraft is only necessary if other governments disagree (or at least, are unwilling to extradite).

26

roger gathmann 06.01.21 at 1:04 pm

23, interestingly, where Osama bin Laden was hiding became a non-question after he escaped on his magic pony, from the rear of Tora Bora, with the military showing that campfires were being lit at those heights but not bombing or anything cause they could have wounded shepherds – although, oddly oddly enough, they bombed and killed mucho civilians at the entrance to the Tora Bora compound. How just absolutely humane the U.S. military is! It is almost as if OBL was more important after 2001 as a terrorist on tap. And so he was the most unhunted man on the planet for what, 9 years? And lo and behold, he holed up a couple miles away from Pakistan’s main military headquarters, where they never saw nor heard of him, honest, they would have told us! It wasn’t as if we didn’t watch them take the Taliban leadership on an airlift out of Kunduz while the U.S. military watched. No sir! We were so serious about a very convenient terrorist threat, especially if we can use that threat in hypotheticals to justify torture, or drone assassination, or forcing down planes. etc. One of the funniest things about the hilarious war on terror is the way American actors, like Rumsfeld, the American Generals, etc., are credited with straightfaced intentions, like: we wanna kill and eat Osama bin Laden instead of, we see a really cool way of bottling up a terrorist and using him as a scary puppet figure to spend a trillion dollars in futile and stupid military operations that we think are cool. There is plenty of info out there about what really happened with good old OBL. https://www.newsweek.com/exclusive-cia-commander-we-let-bin-laden-slip-117937

27

john halasz 06.02.21 at 4:48 am

The gullibility of Western liberals to swallow propaganda offensives salted into the mainstream media has long since ceased to amaze me, especially how they begin their discussion from ascertainably false premises. Of course if you challenge those premises with facts, you must be a Putin/Lukashenko/Assad etc. apologist, if not in their actual pay, since you have offended their bien pensant self-regard and knowledgeability:

https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/05/ryanair-bomb-threat-in-belarus-western-media-narrative-disagrees-with-the-facts.html#more

28

J-D 06.02.21 at 11:08 am

The gullibility of Western liberals to swallow propaganda offensives salted into the mainstream media has long since ceased to amaze me, especially how they begin their discussion from ascertainably false premises. Of course if you challenge those premises with facts, you must be a Putin/Lukashenko/Assad etc. apologist, if not in their actual pay, since you have offended their bien pensant self-regard and knowledgeability:

https://www.moonofalabama.org/2021/05/ryanair-bomb-threat-in-belarus-western-media-narrative-disagrees-with-the-facts.html#more

From the linked site:

The bomb threat was not invented but received by multiple parties including in Lithuania.

I can’t find any indication, however, of how the person who wrote that knows it to be true. It would make a difference if there really was a bomb threat. But was there?

29

Tm 06.02.21 at 4:30 pm

27, 28: There was a separate incident of a bomb threat against another Ryanair flight, FR1901 headed to Poland, on May 31. It was diverted to Berlin and searched for a suspicious item; none was found. Btw no fighter jet was involved and why Belarus needed a fighter jet to help the Ryanair pilot voluntarily without any coercion land in Minsk, even Moonofalabama can’t explain.

Halasz: „The gullibility of Western liberals to swallow propaganda offensives salted into the mainstream media has long since ceased to amaze me“

The gullibility of Western antiliberals still amazes me. It probably shouldn’t but it still amazes me when somebody quotes some random internet source making totally unsubstantiated claims to prove the corruption of „the mainstream media“, in support of a torturing despot.

30

john halasz 06.03.21 at 3:46 am

31

nastywoman 06.03.21 at 4:04 am

@
‘It probably shouldn’t but it still amazes me when somebody quotes some random internet source making totally unsubstantiated claims to prove the corruption of „the mainstream media“, in support of a torturing despot’.

AND I always get soooo confused?
As what kind of ‘mainstream media’ do such ‘Greenwaldians’ mean?
Do they mean the Stupid Right-Wing Racist Mainstream Media Fox?
OR
do they mean the type of ‘mainstream media’ which completely redeemed itself by helping to get rid of a Right-Wing Racist Idiot Science Denier who thinks that –

Belarus is a beautiful city?!

As if Belarus would be just a ‘city’ – Trump wouldn’t have shutdown his new Internet platform – Right? and we would have had such high hopes -(a decade ago) – that the Internet couldn’t self destruct – by Idiots – (and especially very, very hateful idiots) –
kind of taking over?
(and that goes for you – ‘the book’ with the very ugly ‘face’ too!)
Right?

32

Tm 06.03.21 at 7:16 am

28: “It would make a difference if there really was a bomb threat. But was there?”

It would make a difference if there really was a bomb threat and it wasn’t staged by the Lukashenko regime. They did produce an email with a bomb threat – obviously anybody can send one – but it appears to have been sent after the Belarus authorities knew about the bomb threat. I’m sure next time they will be more careful to maintain plausible deniability.

33

Gorgonzola Petrovna 06.03.21 at 9:37 am

@23 “what if they diverted a commercial flight based on intelligence that a disguised Osama Bin Laden was hidden on board?”

More like John Walker Lindh. NY Times would’ve reported successful apprehension of a dangerous criminal, period.

Hypocrisy, ‘vice paying tribute to virtue’, is when a married man with a secret lover lectures others on family values. Or American Secretary of State lecturing on ‘rules-based international order’. Clowning.

This case, punishing others for what you openly do yourself (also: Ukraine vis-a-vis Syria, ‘election meddling’, etc.), I would call it a double standard. With occasional doublethink.

34

steven t johnson 06.03.21 at 4:42 pm

Nothing more on Moon of Alabama, please

35

Tm 06.03.21 at 8:01 pm

“Tm is also sure the US should punish the people of Belarus because Lukashenko is a despot.”

Do I need to point out that nothing I wrote suggests anything of the sort? I guess this is what we should expect when pseudoleftist illiberals follow the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to throw in their lot with torturing despots. Nothing new, of course, we have seen this before.

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