Monday, May 2, 2011

a line in the sand, Dude

With all of the celebratory spirit over the elimination of Osama bin Laden, it is worthwhile to take stock of the costs of America's response to the attacks bin Laden directed. And we should reflect on how America has changed over the last ten years. At Reason, Radley Balko offers a handy, quick-and-dirty list of the ways America has changed for the worse, at least from a civil libertarian perspective:

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
  • We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are implicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.
Well, those are some bullet points, but I have no idea if they matter. Perhaps one in ten thousand people stumbling across this blog (as if I had that kind of traffic!) would change his mind from defending the behavior of the American national security apparatus to a more skeptical posture. Moreover, for better or worse I recognize I am a bit far from the mainstream in my attitudes on civil liberties and military action, as is Mr. Balko. Maybe the bullet points above fall well within the range of appropriate responses to terrorism.

But there has to be a line at some point, right? So here is a question for those who think the policy responses of the American government to 9/11 have been well worth it: Where is the policy line which, upon its crossing, you will decide that the government has gone too far, and has become more fearsome than terrorists? Does that line exist? Is it, in principle, possible that America could become no longer a free country? If America is not just free by definition, what would cause you to decide the country (its people, its history, its culture, etc) you love has lost its way, and is no longer free, however you define the term?

Stretch your imagination. What if a close friend or neighbor, whose character you would vouch for without hesitation, was picked up by national security agents and detained indefinitely. And further, she was given no recourse to trial by her peers. By the way, this exercise works best if you conjure up the face of an actual person in your mind. Now, it's possible that your whole relationship with this person had been a sham. And it's possible that these national security people really know their business. They have information you'll never see. And maybe no one will be able to see their information, because an information leak would just be too dangerous.

Maybe this person you thought was your friend is summarily executed. Maybe she was just too dangerous to wait for proper procedure. The national security people must have good information, right? Torture? The national security people need good information, right? What if you know other people who know people who have been terminated by national security agents in a similar way? What if these numbers keep cropping up?

Hypothetically, what if an entire class of people is shown to be statistically more likely to produce terrorists, or at least to aid and abet terrorism. For national security, these people are removed to ... well, you don't really know where or what. The question: is America still a free country if this comes to pass? If this happens, are the brave men and women in uniform still fighting and dying for a good cause. Or does the fact that they're fighting and dying bravely prove that America is still a free country? What if your son or wife is one of those soldiers. Is it possible, in principle, that he or she could die, bravely, for a bad cause?

I don't mean to say these things are happening. I just want to highlight the notion that surely there is a line somewhere. Each individual's line will be different. I believe it is a valuable exercise for every citizen of every nation to ponder just where his own personal line is.