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Musings: Ethics

Collected musings on ethics, in information security as well as in general.

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Is Civil Disobedience Ethical?

By Stephen Northcutt

I live on the island of Kauai. We aren't in the news much, but we have been lately because of the Hawaii Superferry. Last Sunday, my family joined the crowds lining the jetty. It was amazing to watch the Superferry come into the harbor, and it was moving fast, possibly to bully the surfers in the water. Why were the surfers in the water in the harbor, that isn't where the waves are? Let's look at some of the history of the Superferry in Hawaii.

"Its primary purpose is to ease interisland transportation for Hawaii residents and business owners using their own vehicles. For example, a farmer on Maui might work with several other local growers to ship fresh produce or flowers to Oahu. A family on Oahu might take a trip to visit relatives on Kauai using their own car, thus eliminating the cost of airfare and rental car. Although some visitors might try the Hawaii Superferry, most rental cars will not be allowed onboard. The Superferry operation has been in the development stage for years. The first of two ferries built exclusively for the Hawaii service, at the cost of $95 million, arrived on June 30, 2007. The second ferry is currently under construction and scheduled for delivery in 2009."[1] Right now it is hard to get accurate data since things are so polarized, but it is probably true the majority of island residents support the Superferry. However, there are risks to the environment, and since State funds were used to improve the harbor, an environmental statement was required by law. However, the Department of Transportation decided it was not needed.

At the center of the controversy is Linda Lingle, Governer of Hawaii. And, there are some indications this could expand to become Superferrygate for the Governer, as we can see by the following quote. "I am very disappointed that to this time to this date neither the governor nor the Transportation Department has acknowledged that we were wrong, that they made a mistake," Kauai Sen. Gary Hooser said."[2] The neighbor island city councils passed resolutions asking for an environmental impact statement long before the Superferry started operating. "Kaua'i is becoming a weekend suburb of Honolulu. There are huge costs for us, in transportation, police, and other services. The state is imposing things on this island, without ever even getting our input," Yukimura said. The Kaua'i County Council in January 2005 passed a resolution calling for an environmental impact statement. The councils on Maui and Hawai'i passed similar resolutions.[3]

The voices of protest were there, but nobody was listening. "They haven't done the studies. They haven't developed mitigation measures. So, they're just going ahead and doing their project without any mitigation. That's totally irresponsible," Sierra Club attorney Isaac Hall said.[4] Only hours after hearing oral arguments Thursday, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state was wrong to bypass an environmental study for Hawaii Superferry improvements at Kahului Harbor "as a matter of law."[5]

August 24, 2007, "The high court on Friday issued a 104-page opinion explaining a ruling it handed down last week that an environmental assessment must be conducted of the ferry service. “Stated simply, the record in this case shows that DOT did not consider whether its facilitation of the Hawaii Superferry Project will probably have minimal or no significant impacts, both primary and secondary, on the environment,” Associate Justice James Duffy wrote in the opinion.[6]

Many people have many opinions about the Superferry, but when the Supreme Court unanimously decided it should have had an environmental impact statement prior to operating, they should have stayed in port, and they probably realize that today. However, Sunday, August 26, the Superferry sailed for Kauai. With no support from the Govener and unwilling to follow the law, the Superferry decided to operate. Which brings us to our core question, is civil disobedience ethical? In my book, IT Ethics Handbook, I define ethics as the pursuit of higher principles. Ethics and the law can sometimes be orthogonal. For instance, no one can look back on the Jim Crow laws and call them ethical. "After the American Civil War most states in the South passed anti-African American legislation. These became known as Jim Crow laws. This included laws that discriminated against African Americans with concern to attendance in public schools and the use of facilities such as restaurants, theaters, hotels, cinemas and public baths."[7] In the same way, we cannot justify the pacification of the aboriginal peoples in Australia.[8]

When the law is not working and government does not support the voice of the people one answer is civil disobedience. "Civil disobedience is the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government or of an occupying power without resorting to physical violence. It is one of the primary tactics of nonviolent resistance. In its most nonviolent form (known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.

Civil disobedience has been used in nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's social welfare campaigns and campaigns to speed up independence from the British Empire), in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement and in peace movements worldwide."[9]

And so we come to August 26, 2007 and the Superferry. "In the crowd that gathered against the ferry on Kaua'i on Sunday were protesters who cited the vessel's fuel inefficiency, the danger to marine life from its speed, the fear that alien invasive species will be carried to the island, concerns that O'ahu folks will crowd Kaua'i beaches and surf breaks, that traffic will be worsened, that criminals will arrive with drugs, and so on."[10] And there were surfers in the water, would they be able to stop the Superferry? It came blowing into the harbor as I said earlier, but it had to either run over the surfers or stop; it stopped and eventually backed up and left the harbor. The crowd, thousands of people along the jetty cheered, it was an amazing sight. "The ferry stayed offshore for more than an hour, and then came back in once the Coast Guard presence had been fortified. It passed the end of the harbor breakwater at 7 p.m. "Go home," members of the crowd yelled to the ferry passengers. The ferry moved into the bay with one Coast Guard boat to starboard and two to port. The ship stopped, and the Coast Guard vessels moved into the group of protesters in the water. The orange Coast Guard boats appeared to be moving randomly among the swimmers and surfers, with an officer standing by a deck gun on one of the boats, and others wielding boat hooks. Some surfers were paddling hard to stay away. Some swimmers dove repeatedly to escape as the Coast Guard boats powered toward them. About 7:15 p.m., there was enough room, and the Superferry moved forward, swinging around the south side of the protesters, who were kept at bay by the three Coast Guard boats."[11] The ferry was able to dock, but it was still not a good day for the ferry. "Witnesses say protestors laid down in front of cars as the crew tried to unload the vehicles off Nawiliwili Harbor. At that point, they say the Superferry boarded passengers back on the ship."[12]

Monday, August 27, neither I nor my family was there; there were some angry outbursts against passengers and Superferry employees on Sunday I do not approve of. One Superferry employee is a family friend of Hawaiian descent and if the ferry doesn't run, she doesn't get paid and that family is having a hard time making the rent. Some of the protesters were verbally abusive to her. According to KHNL the Superferry was stopped entirely on Monday: "Protestors in the water, and on shore showed up for a second evening as the Superferry sailed into Nawiliwili Harbor Monday night. Witnesses tell us there were nearly 50 opponents in the water, on surfboards, canoes, and kayaks. They formed a human blockade, forcing the ferry to stall for nearly 3 hours outside the harbor. Coast Guard vessels tried to clear a way for the ship. But they proved unsuccessful the Alakai eventually turned back to Honolulu. Eleven protestors were taken into police custody, including 4 children. Louise Sausen a Kauai resident said, "The kids that were out in the protest line. The police and the swat team that they sent out here went down and they were gonna arrest the kids and it's terrible, its terrible. They were gonna arrest the kids who were standing up for their rights." "This is really ironic. Here you have this operation that is operating in blatant disregard for the law and you know the government, our government is going after the peaceful protestors, protesting in the only way they know how," said Rep. Hermina Morita. Police attempted to arrest members of the blockade as soon as they stepped onto land, so many stayed in the water as long as possible, to avoid arrest. Witnesses also tell us others in the crowd provided the protestors with dry clothes to blend in with the folks on land."[13] Also on Monday, "A Maui judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Hawaii Superferry's use of Kahului Harbor until a court hearing can be held within 10 days. Judge Joseph Cardoza says the Superferry will not be allowed to use Pier 2 at the harbor but that the ferry's operators first are required to offer to return customers who already took the ship on its first two days of operation to their "home" port. After which, Hawaii Superferry must "immediately cease operations at Kahului Harbor," said Cardoza's order which was issued this afternoon."[14]

Today, a week later, the Superferry is grounded. Mostly there are unanswered questions. The issue is very divisive and heated statements are being made. Some news reports tried to show the protesters as rude. Clearly a few disparaging remarks were made, but on the whole, from what I saw on Sunday the crowd was pretty well behaved. Consider these two notes from the Garden Island opinion pages.

  • I am disappointed that some people seem to have been seduced by the media portrayal of the Superferry protests. Rather than an irrational mob, what I witnessed at Nawiliwili was a strong and unified group of Kaua’i citizens standing together for what they believe in: The preservation of Kaua’i. I saw people of all ages, ethnicities and income levels, from kama’aina to malihini, participating in protest and direct action — activities with long and dignified histories.[15]
  • Next time, we’ll be better. I was not at the docks on Sunday night when the so-called “riot” occurred. I do not condone these actions, and can understand why some are outraged. However, I did show up on Monday night and was impressed with the solidarity shown between people of all ages and races who did not want the Superferry. Kaua’i has not had this type of protest since ... anyone remember? We are a little out of practice. Next time, we promise to be better organized and more peaceful. A hui hou.[16]
For now, on Kauai, there is a sense of satisfaction, a sense that the people can make a difference. The civil disobedience could have been better, should have been done better, there was no need to yell at passengers or Superferry employees. However, the civil disobedience was good for Kauai, and hopefully good for Hawaii. Hawaii has a problem with Government arrogance and corruption, "The criminal convictions of state Sen. Marshall Ige and Honolulu City Council members Rene Mansho and Andy Mirikitani, the recent indictment of state Sen. Nathan Suzuki, the campaign-financing probe into Mayor Jeremy Harris' re-election and gross public-employee thievery at the airport and Ewa Villages have shaken Hawaii voters."[17] This is probably a primary reason Lingle was elected. "When Gov. Linda Lingle took office in 2002, beating out Cayetano’s Lieutenant Governor Mazie Hirono, she promised to reform government in three major ways, including restoring trust and openness in government. She promised no more retaliation, no more hostile relations between the government and the business community, no more targets, and no more corruption. Her promises brought a sigh of relief from many people, including those who had been targets of the last administration,"[18] However her actions are not necessarily consistent with her words. In addition to the Superferry fiasco, she also tried in 2004 to manipulate the state's Sunshine Law. "Government watchdog groups are surprised that such a bill came from the governor’s administration, especially considering the troubled history Hawaii has had with corruption in government and secrecy, and Lingle’s pledge to make government more accountable and restore trust in government."[18]

Many of us are in fields that are governed by a code of ethics or conduct. Let me encourage you to take a minute and take stock of your own life and point of view. Under what circumstances might you participate in civil disobedience, under what circumstances might you withdraw? I will end with a reminder that the United States was born of Civil disobedience.

From Freedom isn't free:
"Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence?
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died.
Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.
Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.
Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.
They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. What kind of men were they? Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners; men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured."[19]

All URLs harvested September 02, 2007
15. letter by Kathy Rose, Hanalei
16. letter by Anela Lauren Lawa‘i

19. See18 above