Liberty, torture, and cowardice

Abandoning the rule of law, civil liberty, and civilized behavior because following them might lead to danger is a cowardly thing to do. Perhaps the opponents of torture ought to start saying so.

The Bush Administration has claimed, and (for the second time) gotten a court to agree, that a completely innocent person kidnapped by an agency of the United States Government and sent abroad to be tortured cannot sue for redress if the government claims that responding to the suit would force it to reveal “state secrets.” The two cases so far both involved foreign nationals, but the legal doctrine underlying the decision doesn’t depend on that. So any citizen is now subject to being “disappeared,” without any recourse, at the unreviewable whim of the Executive Branch.

Lincoln had it right:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Time to mount a suicide watch over this republic, I think.

Pat Robert’s “You don’t have civil liberties when you’re dead”, is, as Matt Yglesias noted today and Mike O’Hare said a while ago, a reflection of the cowardice that prefers to live in chains rather than risk death for freedom. (Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin would have disapproved.)

Mike proposed that Democrats should reframe the civil liberty and torture issues as matters of courage vs. cowardice. Democrats, he claims, should say:

Americans have always known there are worse things to lose than our lives. The Republicans think we’ve forgotten about them. And those are exactly the things this administration, and the Republican Congress, are willing to have us lose. They’re treating us like cowards, and we’re not.

It’s a creative idea. BushCo and its journalistic allies have been working hard to generate fear in the electorate, and the Administration has scored political points by pretending that its cowardly actions &#8212 torture is a bully’s tactic, and every bully is a coward &#8212 reflect manliness, and that those who insist that the United States act like itself and not like its enemies are somehow weak.

Pointing out that it takes courage to stand up for the nation’s values in times of danger might be a good way to turn that rhetorical disadvantage for the friends of liberty and civilized behavior into an advantage. “In war and politics, take the high ground.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “Liberty, torture, and cowardice”

  1. Oh but the problem is that they are cowards. The majority of people in the US are so afraid of dieing or of paying $4 for a gallon of gas that they'll give up any civil liberty to keep the party going. That's a bipartisan value now.

  2. I look forward to re-casting these arguments: concern for economic security (etc.) is nothing but cowardice. And who wouldn't agree with that?

  3. Actually, I somewhat agree with Thomas. In the current case, I think we can get more mileage by describing this case as what it really is: an elementary denial of justice on inadequate grounds. (We had also better start pointing out that torture was illegal during all of this nation's previous wars of survival right back to the Revolutionary War.)

  4. re economic security, yeah, the Republicans don't seem very concerned about it. So, no problem with adding that in.

  5. Actually, Glenn Greenwald makes the cowardice argument quite well in his book, appropriately invoking Patrick Henry. (When I was reading it and got to 'Give me liberty or give me death!' and the contrast with the 'you don't have civil liberties when you're dead' Reoublicans, I had one of those 'darn, I wish I had written that' moments that happen so frequently when I read blogs and books by their authors.)

  6. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a few other NGOs, have designated June Torture Awareness Month. I've created a blogroll you can join if you're interested. You can find it here. The idea is that everyone is linked to from the blogroll, and in exchange, you discuss torture (as you already do), and link to the Torture Awareness site to help support the NGOs.
    There's a lot of bloggers concerned about human rights abuse in the War on Terror. If we coordinate, we can show our support and help Amnesty and HRW make Torture Awareness Month a success!

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