Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Detainees and American Moral Values

Congress is enacting the most morally horrendous legislation since the Japanese Internment of the 1940s. It's a part of an election strategy that can be summed up as follows. "If we can get the Democrats on record as being pro-Justice and pro-Constitution, then the American people will keep the Republicans in power."

The legislation is the detainee legislation - which specifies how the government may treat prisoners it apprehends in the "war on terror."

First, if defines these prisoners as "enemy combatants" – if not in fact, then in practice. Everybody arrested is guilty of a crime - 'guilty by definition' based on the mere fact he had been picked up. Consider this: You are asleep in your home. The police come in, arrest you, haul you off to prison, and then assert that everybody it arrests is a murderer. No trial. No evidence. Your guilt is established by the mere fact that you have been arrested. Because you are a murderer, you are a threat to others. Those others have a right to make sure that you stay in prison until they decide it is safe to let you out again. Yet, remember. You have done nothing. This is the "justice" written into the detainee legislation.

Second, it gives the President the sole power to determine what counts as torture, or cruel treatment, and denies any court the power to over-rule him. So, if the President asserts that skinning a person alive in a vat of hot oil does not violate the Geneva Conventions, then it does not violate the Geneva Conventions. We may think that this is absurd, but no Court has the power to force the President to use any other definition.

Third, it denies prisoners the "right of habeas corpus" - the right to demand that captors prove that they have good reason to hold a person in prison. So, after the police pull you out of your bed and throw you in jail with other "murderers" (where "murderer" is defined as "anybody the police hauls out of bed and throws in jail," you will have no right to demand that your captors prove that they did not make a mistake. (Of course, how could they make a mistake since, certainly, everybody they haul out of bed and lock up is a "murderer" under these definitions?)

I have argued in the past as to the moral quality of these actions.

A primary moral argument involves using the practice of imagining yourself being subject to the same rules you apply to others - the 'do unto others' principle. This is why I have used the examples above - of imagining yourself being hauled out of bed and locked up as a 'murderer' - where you are a murderer merely because you have been locked up, and you are not allowed to demand that your captors prove they have locked up a real murderer.

It is because the principle of justice - the principle of morality - says that if you have moral objections to others treating you in this way, then it is immoral (and unjust) for you to treat (or have the government, as your servant) treat others in this way.

This is a moral argument against this type of treatment. One of the defenses that the Bush Administration uses is that "we are only going to do this to foreigners; we will not treat Americans this way" (notwithstanding the fact that American citizens have been arrested and identified as "enemy combatants"). But this is like the Nazis arguing that, "The gas chambers are perfectly acceptable. After all, we are not going to use them on the Arians. We are only going to use them on the Jews." This type of argument is NOT a legitimate defense against the charge that one's policies are immoral and unjust.

Note: This weekend, in the "moral theory" posts, I am going to have to discuss the relevance of "do unto others" in a desire-utilitarian framework.

And if the moral argument is not presuasive, we must consider a practical argument as well. Every bill be pass is a set of principles that we prescribe for the entire world - because it makes no sense to say that we may do things that no other government in the world may do. So, by passing this legislation, we tell the world that they, too, may give their executives arbitrary and unchecked power to torture, arrest people and hold them indefinitely without trial, and deprive them of due process and justice, and we have no objection to this. We, after all, are with them in this. We think that those types of government are model governments that are a beacon to the world, because we are one of them.

However, the important point that I want to bring up now is: Why is the Republican party pushing this legislation now?

The reason is simple.

Republican strategists realize (and, I assume, Democratic strategists have confirmed) that if the Republicans can force the Democrats to go on record as being pro-justice and pro-Constitution (by which I mean 'pro-those-moral-principles-of-justice-written-into-the-Constitution), by voting against this legislation, then the American people will reject the Democratic party and keep power in the hands of the Republicans.

Iti would seem that it should be the other way around. It would seem that the American people should be looking at the vote on the issue and turning out those legislators that are anti-Justice and anti-Constitution. However, both major parties seem to agree that this is not what the American people are about. The American people are not pro-justice, and pro-Constitution. They are anti-Justice and anti-Constitution. The way to win votes - the way to keep political power - is for a candidate to show that he share's America's values of injustice and immorality.

If it were the case that the American people were a just and moral nation, then they would not support this legislation, or the candidates that defend it.

There are many groups in this country that claim to be interested in "moral values" and who moan about the lack of moral values in America today. If these groups were to stand up and announce their opposition to this legislation, it will not pass. Yet, they do not stand up, Instead, they show themselves to be key supporters of injustice standing fully behind any politician willing to put a hard stop to the moral principles written into the Constitution. This provides further evidence that America is no longer a nation of truth and justice, but a nation of lies and injustice.

Some would likely disagree with my claim that the principles that lie at the foundation of this law are immoral. Yet, I am not making a mere assertion. I have given my proof. It is found in the answer to the question, "Would you support others doing to you or those who you love what this legislation says the Bush Administration may do to others?" If the answer is 'no' – if the answer is that you would protest as unjust and immoral being taken from your home, held indefinitely without trial and tortured, then I have proved my case. The principles that this legislation will write into American law are immoral and unjust. If moral and just people would reject this legislation, and the American people accept it, then the American people are immoral and unjust.

This, of course, does not prove that ALL American people are immoral and unjust. We must accept the fact that there is a minority of Americans who are out of touch with mainstream American values. However, this is a minority - people who certainly should not have any say in Government decisions because those people do not represent American values – which apparently means torture, rendition, indefinite imprisonment without charges, and an arbitrary executive power that answers to nobody but itself.

At this point, I cannot tell with much certainty how many Americans fall into each camp. The Republican Party seems to think that America is dominated by unjust individuals who will gladly destroy the Constitution and support those candidates that share those values. Many in the Democratic Party seem to think the same thing, because they are not doing much to stand up to the Republicans. With both parties living on the assumption that America will prefer injustice over justice and building their campaign strategies on this assumption, we are not given much room to hope that this is not the case.

I hope that they are wrong.

Only time will tell.

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