Friday, December 30, 2005


I wrote yesterday's blog entry, “The Ten Amendments” as an introduction to today’s discussion of the practice of rendition.

Rendition is a practice whereby American CIA agents enter another country (so far . . . we think), kidnap a citizen off of the streets, put him in the trunk of a car, haul him to an airport and fly him to a "black site" prison. There, he is questioned using a number of harsh questioning techniques. To the rest of the world, he simply disappears.

Sometimes, these agents discover that they have captured and questioned somebody who is useless to them. These people show up again, months or years later, with stories of what they have gone through.

Yesterday, my theme was that the Bill of Rights either embodies a moral code that has been formally acknowledged as a part of our law, or they are political contrivances of no real significance. If we hold the former view, then a person does not need to be an American to have these rights, and Americans themselves would still have these rights even if they were not listed in the Constitution. If we hold the latter view, then there is nothing particularly special in the fact that Americans have these ‘rights’; so, if they really are the burden and the threat that the Bush Administration claim them to be, perhaps we should discard them.

If we take the former view -- if these are moral rights -- then the nationality of the victim of a wrongdoing is not relevant. I used the slogan that if it is wrong to murder, then it is just as wrong to murder an Albanian as an Alabaman. If it is wrong to rape, then it is as wrong to rape a Peruvian as it is to rape a Pennsylvanian.

Testing the Morality of Rendition

So, I offer this test. In any story of rendition, read the story while blinding yourself to the nationality of the victim or the location of the act. Imagine going online to read the local news and learning that the American government has been sending FBI agents out to pick up suspected criminals. Those criminals are hauled off to secret prisons where they are held and interrogated for months. No news of their capture is ever released. Friends, family, relatives, employers, only know that they disappeared.

In your imagination, have it be recognized that we know about these activities because a few people who disappeared eventually popped up again. They popped up with stories describing their capture, their torture, their imprisonment for years (in some cases) without charges and without opportunity to defend themselves. Imagine that at least one of the people who disappeared came from your neighborhood.

In fact, you might disappear suddenly because there is no judicial review or indictment. let's say that the government decides that the war on drugs deserves the same treatment as the war on terror -- it certainly does a lot more harm. Maybe some old college roommate with your number on his speed dial got in trouble with the law – as a drug smuggler, for example, and now the government is suspicious of you. So, they want to question you about what you know about these crimes. So, one evening, while walking the dog, a black van pulls up, your family is left wondering where you went.

Imagine that the victim is an American and the acts are occurring in this country. Then ask yourself, "Is this wrong?"

If it is wrong, then discovering that the victim is German or Lebanese or Iraqi is not relevant. When we say that murder is wrong, we say that the nationality of the victim does not matter. When we say that rape is wrong, we say that the nationality of the victim does not matter. If we imagine the rendition of an American and say that it is wrong – truly wrong in the moral sense to abduct a person off the streets and have him disappear without a trial and with no hope of judicial review -- then the nationality of the victim does not matter.

On the other hand, if we say that the nationality of the victim does matter, then we are saying that the act is not wrong. We are saying that the government may, and perhaps should, be doing these same things to Americans and that there would be nothing wrong with it. It may be illegal. However, we should look at the fact that the laws prohibit some particularly useful policies such as the rendition of American citizens off of American streets. If rendition is not wrong, then the laws that make it illegal should be abolished, so that the government can get on with doing that which it has every moral right to do.

We should shrug our shoulders and say, "So what?" as casually to the idea that an American has been subject to rendition as we would if the victim was a foreigner.

Or, we should be as angry and when the victim of a rendition is a foreigner as we would be if the victim were an American.

A third option, as I wrote yesterday, is to suggest that Americans are the only entities with full moral rights. On this model, citizens of other countries are not considered fully moral entities. They are not full ‘persons’ in the moral sense, but are something less than ‘persons’. Rendition would be one of those things that one is morally prohibited from doing to a ‘person’, but not to the sub-person entities that occupy other countries.


"But we would be in danger if we respected the rights of everybody!" the protestor cries.

This argument is not valid against the universality of morality. It does not disprove the claim that if something is wrong, it is as wrong to do that thing to a Peruvian as it is to a Pennsylvanian. It can only be used to argue that certain things are not wrong. This, in turn, would imply that it is as permissible to do that thing to a Pennsylvanian as it would be to do it to a Peruvian.

If the argument truly implies that rendition is a morally permissible action, then there is no moral reason to protect Pennsylvanians from the possibility of rendition. Indeed, if these protections are a threat to the nation, then we should immediately go to work eliminating these barriers against the rendition of Pennsylvanians (and all other Americans).

If, instead, the possibility of danger does not justify making Americans subject to the possibility of rendition, then we are back in the same trap of trying to explain why it is permissible to do to non-American humans that which American humans have a right not to have done to them.

Which Way Do We Go?

I fear that, if certain members of the Bush Administration get a hold of this argument -- particularly Attorney General Gonzales -- that the rendition of Americans off of American streets is just around the corner. Actually, to be honest, given this Administration’s claim that there is no limit to what they may do, I would not be surprised if Bush has not identified American citizens as “enemy combatants” and that a few Americans have disappeared in this way. I am not saying that it has happened, only that a news report saying that it had would not surprise me.

Anyway, I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for the repeal of the Bill of Rights and the rendition of American citizens from American streets. I argue that this is one way to avoid hypocrisy, but it is not the best way. The best way to avoid hypocrisy is to grant that non-American humans have the same human rights that American humans have.

We have written these rights into our Constitution. However, if they had not been written into our Constitution, we would still have these rights. Similarly, the fact that the regard of non-American humans as full persons in the moral sense is not written into our Constitution, they remain full persons in the moral sense nonetheless.

My argument in favor of promoting these principles universally is that, to the degree that we weaken the aversion to these types of actions, to that degree they become more common. To the degree that we engage in torture, to that degree we endorse and promote torture. To the degree that we engage in rendition, to that degree we endorse and promote rendition. To the degree that we promote torture and rendition, to that degree we build a world filled with torture and rendition.

If we are seeking to build a world without torture and rendition, then we need to give up the practice, as our way of telling others that they must give up the practice as well.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and do not do unto others that which you hold it would be wrong for them to do unto you.” Give up those practices that you would not allow to be practiced on yourself or your neighbors. That is what morality demands.


inkadu said...

hi, alonzo.

this is apropos of your post here, but do you know anyone who has countered Sam Harris' defense of torture in "The End of Faith"?

I loved that book until that chapter, then I thought he was total fucking fool. He has laid out a case for the superiority of atheism, then in the next breath shows how torture (and implicitly genocide) is a logical moral necessity...

His argument, for torture, is basically the ticking-time bomb argument. If we can torture one person because we know there is a bomb (which he accepts), why can't we torture a thousand people because we suspect there may be a bomb some time in the future? Seems pretty facile, but I was hoping someone with ethical chops had looked at it.

Anonymous said...


I've been reading your blog for a few weeks. From what I've seen so far, nice work!

The idea, however, that Constitutional rights reflect moral principles that we must apply equally to those of other nationalities seems problematic in a couple of cases.

First, what about war? I generally hold that we, and others, have a moral right to, and should be expected to, defend ourselves from attack or the imminent threat thereof. Yet, wholesale attack of another country -- which remains an inaccurate game that almost inevitably leads to some non-combatant casualties -- would be unacceptable against, say, Missouri.

Admittedly, the above isn't something written into the Consitution -- whereas the assumption of war against other nations clearly is -- but I'd argue that this is a pretty clear moral conviction we hold, even if it's not one implicitly embodied in the Constitution. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts regarding consistent treatment of Americans vs. non-Americans here.

Second, what about spying on other nations and their communications? If Constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure reflect a moral principle that applies to all human beings equally, why shouldn't our government refrain from all intelligence gathering without establishing some kind of judicial process?

(I apologize if you've previously covered these issues elsewhere in your writings on this site.)


Alonzo Fyfe said...


There is no need to apologize. As I write, it becomes less and less reasonable for me to expect somebody to have gone through everything that has come before. I can direct commentors to the relevant posts if I have covered something before.

I can offer as a preliminary suggestion, we should treat prisoners of war the way we expect our soldiers to be treated when captured. Accordingly, anything we do to captured prisoners we imply may be permissibly done to our soldiers.

This is one of the larger problems that I have with Bush's policy. Bush is creating a situation where captured Americans may be subject to the same treatments that we inflict on others.

I would rather have a President saying, "You had better treat our soldiers with the respect due to prisoners of war." The best way to do this is still to do unto others as one would have them do.

At the same time, if we would call an enemy a moral monster if they do A, B, and C to prisoners, while we are doing A, B, and C to those we capture, then it seems to follow quite directly that we are the moral monsters.