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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Credibility Gap

When I first joined the debate team during my sophomore year of college, I attended a novice tournament at Columbia where they had seminars and demonstration rounds and so on for those who had never debated before, or who were new to the style. I arrived somewhat late owing to not having any damn clue where I was going, but walked in just in time to hear a demo round about whether or not the use of torture ought to be permissable. The thing which struck me as odd at the time was that, while both sides talked about the reliability of torture as a mechanism for information gaining and all of that, a conspiciously absent portion of the discourse was whether or not, even if you averted some major disaster with what you gained from torture, it was worthwhile. This was taken as assumed - that torturing someone who, ex post facto, you find to be guilty, and foiling a malicious plot against a country, was clearly benficial. This sort of reasoning has begun to resurface in the events of the past few years, and the debate was rekindled after Abu Gharib.

The Washington Post has an editorial today on the recent supreme court decision relating to foreigner's ability to sue in US courts via the Alien Tort Statute of 1789. The editorial rightly points out that the statute has unconsciounably broad language, referring to torts "committed in violation of the law of nations," the eighteenth century version of the term 'human rights,' and acting as a catchall which no longer has the clear meaning it once did. What I find problematic about the editorial isn't, however, the subject matter. It's one phrase they use:
"You don't have to be indifferent to human rights abuses to have misgivings about this reading, because it creates troubling problems for democratic government and permits the courts to interfere excessively in the conduct of foreign policy."

It's not that I'm not sympathetic to the view that the courts are an intranational order keeping mechanism, and certainly should not be a foreign affairs making entity. It's just that this should be a completley tangental point. It should be something which is just understood, not something around which a debate can exist. It's nausating that the courts have to act as a mechanism to check our own government, when it's our government who is propegating the human rights abuses about which they speak. The greatest embarassments in our national, and indeed human history, have been with respect to our momentary emotions shouting down our better angels and allowing us to treat other people as objects. Slavery, internment camps, and now exploiting a legal loophole to destroy habeus corpus for a number of people at Guantanamo bay.

I wish it were still a time when our country could pass this law with a straight face, declaring that, whether or not we are a hemispheric power, we have something the imperalist governments of Europe lack - credibility. We'll throw open the doors to our courts to all who cannot find justice in their own system, that it might be granted to them in ours. An impartial arbiter in disputes arising under the law of nations. We could be a source of actual hope, represent all of the posturing, arrogant rheotric the present administration is so lugubriously parroting these days. If we were to create a similar offer in these times, the rest of the world would raise a chrous of dissent, asking against whom we presumed to protect them, when we are the ones who need to be reigned in.

The International Criminal Court is being constructed for this very purpose, but the United States, who once, in the face of scorn, espoused the very ideal the ICC represents, will not sign on unless we are beyond the grasp of its power. The United States has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which insures such crazy guarantees as the freedom of expresion, thought and identity as well as freedom from torture and sexual exploitation... becuase we want to reserve the right to kill any of them if they get out of line. When the Kyoto talks produced a plan to which the United States was not amenable (becuase it unconscionably asked us not to destroy the environment), rather than assuming role of the architect of something better, we walked away, declaring that the health and wellbeing of the world was not our concern. AIDS is an epidemic which is killing millions of people worldwide, and has just begun another upswing, and the United States refuses to sell drugs to Africa at a discounted price because it wants to protect the investment of pharmacutical companies and their intellectual property. Never mind that 97% of the money that researched the drugs was fronted by the government.

The litany could extend almost indefinitely without even covering more than the past decade.

The harms of undermining the credibility of our system are so much greater than any individual victory or defeat, it's almost incomprehensible that any sane body would be willing to do it. The harms of our country losing the moral high ground is that our pleas for help fall on deaf ears, and even if we want to do good now, nobody will believe our motives to be anything but sinister. We once lived in a world where we could afford these transgressions becuase they were a spot on an otherwise clean record. That's no longer the case.

The idea of the act may not have been to provide a stronghold of justice for all comers. But I like to think that it might have been. And it saddens me to think that it no longer could be.

cranked out at 12:47 PM | |

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