Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sean Hannity's Tyranny-Friendly Theory of Rights

There is an outrageously poor argument being used to defend the Guantanamo detention facility these days. A recent example of it was uttered by Sean Hannity.

They declared war on us and we're fighting a war and we know there is about 60-some odd detainees that have gone back to the battlefield. Why for the first time ever would we give rights to enemy combatants?

See, Crooks and Liars, Hannity suggests Christianity compatible with torture.

First, that which can be taken or given away is not a right.

Sean Hannity does not own my rights, or the rights of any other human being. Therefore, Sean Hannity does not have the authority to give to people - or to take away - my rights, or the rights of any other human being.

If we accept Hannity's view of rights, then America was wrong to break from England, was wrong to write in its Declaration of Independence that people have inalienable rights, and was wrong to establish a Constitution whose purpose was to protect the rights of the people.

Instead, under Hannity's theory of rights, a right only exists if somebody in authority sees fit to respect that right, and ceases to exist as soon as the authorizing power withdraws it. This is a theory of rights that any tyrant would love to embrace - and is directly opposed to the theory of rights that was put forth by those who created this country.

Now, I have some disputes with a theory of rights that is now well over 200 years old. However, I hold that one of the things that the founding fathers got right is the idea that a right is not something owned to the likes of Sean Hannity, to be handed out or given away at his pleasure.

What the founding fathers got right was the idea that rights exist as a matter of natural fact. A person can respect the rights that others have as a matter of fact, or he can violate those rights. However, he lacks the power to create or destroy those rights. If he respects the rights of others, he is a decent and moral human being. If he violates those rights (or calls upon others to violate them in his name), then he is evil.

Second, I can use the same argument Hannity uses to "justify" the indefinite imprisonment of people in Guantanamo Bay to "justify" anybody's imprisonment (even yours) without a spot of evidence that you have or will do anything wrong.

All I need to do is to round up 1000 random individuals – let's make them almost exclusively male, just for fun. I hold them for 2 to 4 years under brutal conditions that includes torture and other forms of abuse. I deprive them of opportunities to establish a peaceful life for themselves – destroy their families and their civil relationships. Then, I release 800 of them back to civilization.

Two years later, I reveal that 60 of those 800 have committed some act of aggression.

From here, I argue that none of the original 1000 people should have been released, and that no future detainee (even you) should ever be released. I would not need any evidence of guilt on your part. Nor would you have any right to a trial whereby I would be obligated to present my evidence against you. The only evidence I need to justify keeping you locked up indefinitely is the act that somebody else was released, then he went on and committed some offense.

This type of reasoning is perfect for giving tyranny a secure foundation. The tyrant need not make any use of courts, or evidence, or to provide for any type of due process. Any time it is true of any prisoner that, "If I release you, you will have the opportunity to commit some offense," then one is authorized to keep the prisoner behind bars. And, since this is always true, there is no such thing as a person who does not deserve to be behind bars.

You can commit an offense at any time. I cannot predict with absolute certainty that you will not. Therefore, in the name of security, you should be locked up. I do not need to have any evidence against you. All I need is to know that, if you are not locked up then, in the next 5 years, you might commit an act of violence, and I have all the authority I need to lock you up.

That, according to the Sean Hannity Theory of Rights. A theory, by the say, that seems these days to be quite popular among Republicans who, somehow, hold the wholly contradictory belief that they best represent the values of the founding fathers.


NAL said...

Devastating argument. Great post.

Anonymous said...

That was fantastic. You've elegantly summed up an idea I've stumbled over in previous debates over this exact topic. Thank you.

Baconsbud said...

You hit it right on with this post. Now the real question is how do make those that view it as their right to take away rights, they are wrong? I figure most that support the former administation would say you have it wrong but not explain how.

Izgad said...

The enemy combatants in this case are out of uniform combatants and as such they are in the same category as spies and saboteurs. Spies and saboteurs traditionally had no legal rights and countries were free to torture and execute them to their hearts’ content. Because of this British scouting officers during the Napoleonic wars wore uniforms even when they were behind enemy lines so even if they were captured they would be treated as prisoners of war and not as spies. It is important for this line between uniform and out of uniform combatants because without it countries would have no motive to put their soldiers in uniforms. This would eliminate the line between soldiers and civilians which would lead to even bigger problems.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Whether they are or are not "enemy combatants out of uniform" is exactly what needs to be demonstrated at a trial.

Your argument here would be like me rounding up 1000 people and saying that they are drug smugglers as, because they are drug smugglers and the penalty for smuggling drugs is 15 years in prison, I sentence them to 15 years in prison.

Without any proof that they are drug smugglers or any trial - nothing but my accusation.

Izgad said...

The question than would become what sort of trial they would get in light of the charges. People accused of being spies, particularly during war time, are going to be given a trial but they are not going to be given a civilian trial; they will get a military trial. The American government also claims that we are dealing with people captured on the battlefield so that makes them de facto POWs. Since they are out of uniform than they are de facto enemy soliders captured out of uniforms.
I do not claim that this is a good situation and I do not deny that there is room for abuse. But that is the situation we are working with.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Except, the battlefield is defined as the whole of planet earth.

You, currently, are an enemy combatant out of uniform.

The fact that you are not an enemy combatant is irrelevant.

Since you are an enemy combatant, you have no rights - no right to a trial, no right for the government to provide evidence for believing that you are an enemy combatant - nothing.

Hume's Ghost said...

Yeah, what part of "inalienable" doesn't he get?

Thomas Paine put it best:

"An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself" - Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795)

Izgad said...

There is a big difference between me living here in the United States minding my own business and someone caught waging a pitched battle against American troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. In a sense non uniformed combatants are in an even worse situation than spies in that they get the worst of both situations. Captured enemy soldiers do not have a right to trial. They do have certain protections under the Geneva accords. They must be given a certain base line of living conditions. They cannot be executed or tortured. Spies have no protection under the Geneva conventions. So they can be tortured and killed to one’s heart’s content. They still though require some sort of trial. Non uniformed combatants have no rights under the Geneva accords, at least under the version that we signed, nor do they need to be put on trial. So yes America has at least the theoretical right to keep prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and torture them until judgment day. In practice I acknowledge that some of the prisoners may not fall under this category of out of uniform combatants and do have legitimate legal rights.
David Hume’s Ghost
The concept of inalienable rights is a bit more complex than you are letting on. The government by definition is an organization that has the right to violate the inalienable rights of an individual as long as it serves to protect the inalienable rights of the greater body of citizens. Yes the government can take my property; it is called taxes. Yes the government can take away my liberty; it is called the draft. The government can even take my life. As a solider I can be told to march up a hill into heavy machine gun fire and certain death. That is the deal I make with the government when I agree to live as a citizen. If anyone has any objections to this they can give up their citizenship and go live in another country. I am not supporting government tyranny. As a libertarian I recognize that government is a coercive force. I do not romanticize this nor do I apologize for this. As a libertarian, though, I want the government limited in its spheres of action as much as possible.
One is always making a tradeoff between freedom and security there is never going to be an ideal situation. Tomorrow you might be wrongfully arrested for murder and spend the rest of your life in jail. Usually we keep heavily to the freedom side of the equation. In times of war that balance changes a bit. I, as a citizen, and any judge on a bench are both going to give the government a whole lot more of the benefit of the doubt in a time of war. If we were ever faced with a 24 type situation where there was a WMD on American soil in the hands of terrorists than the constitution would for all intents and purposes cease to exist.

Anonymous said...

Izgad, you live in a fantasy world. Many of these "enemy combatants" are not caught waging pitched battle against anyone. They are rounded up in sweeps, or turned over to the authorities by anonymous tips from people who may have ulterior motives. The reason the concept of a trial exists is to seperate those who are guilty from those who are innocent. It's estimated 1/3rd of the people in Gitmo had done nothing wrong.

Furthermore, what you are asserting is exactly what a tyrant would love. That since the govt has the power to do these things, there should be no protest when they do them. Your "accept it, or leave the country" attitude is a tyrant's dream come true.

And no, the govt does not have a right to march you to certain death for no reason. The military leaders have a duty to minimize casualties where possible, and to ensure that every life lost was spent as efficiently as possible in the pursuit of the best goal possible. To claim they can just order you to your death on a whim is to licence the killing of anyone at anytime.

Izgad said...

I specifically said that it is quite likely that many of the people held at Guantanamo are not really enemies caught on the battlefield and therefore they would not count as out of uniform combatants. So we are on the same page on that front. There is more to deciding guilt or innocence than a trial. It is not a matter of there is doubt therefore hold a trial. There are other procedures that are can be used. We can have a grand jury or an investigation.
I never said that one should just do what the government says. A basic part of democracy is the practice of a legitimate non treasonous form of opposition. The most basic form of opposition being voting against those in power. On a day to day basis we also have the ability to criticize the government and peacefully protest against its actions. These actions become somewhat more limited when we are in a state of war. For example both Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally served time in prison since they were American citizens who broadcasted enemy propaganda. Here is a rule of thumb; try to avoid doing or saying anything that you think might end up broadcasted as a propaganda piece by the enemy.
As a Libertarian I find it funny being accused of defending tyranny when I am not the one allowing the government into people’s private lives and people’s property.
I never said that the government can march people off to their deaths without reason; it has the responsibility to make sure that its soldiers do not die in vain. In practice, though, a soldier on the ground is not in a position to challenge whether there is a legitimate reason for him to march up a hill into machine gun fire. An army cannot function with soldiers debating which orders to obey or not. So a soldier will have to obey that order without arguing one way or another. (Similarly a society in war cannot function like that either. So in a time of war many features of a democracy and a free society are going to be temporarily put on hold. The Romans famously had the formal policy of putting a dictator in charge in times of war.)

Mark B. said...

Any one with HALF a brain (or who has watched George Carlin) knows there is no such thing as "rights". There are only privileges because ANYTHING can be taken from you... just read a little history if you need convincing. Freedom is not a right but is earned just as respect has to be... you don't have a "right" to respect.

The problem is that people like Eneasz are the ones in a fantasy land of how the perfect world should be and this is NOT that place. Bad things happen for no reason and you can do everything you can to succeed and still fail. That’s the world we live in so lets deal with it shall we... and lets be brutally honest as well. None of you really care about these people except to add fuel to your personal arguments. How many have said "They can stay at my house"? Just like all the other countries who say how horrible it was to keep these guys but thank you no we don't want them. Just like all the democrats who voted against the funding to close Gitmo but immediately went on TV after the vote to say how terrible they thought it was to keep it open. HA! They are just the latest hot topic for discussion. Hannity is a right wing bomb thrower just like Ann Coulter, Chris Matthews and that idiot Olberman. You will be better off listening to them with that grain of salt in the mix.

Now as for what to do with these people it is simple. Lots of people want to see them tried and lots want to see them not enter the country so hold the trial at Gitmo. I feel sure that the bleeding hearts from the ACLU will do everything they can to insure it is held almost identically to a trial held in the states… and that’s what will happen unless the polls shift then the politicians might waver because they don’t care about rights unless it gets them votes… and that is Democrat or Republican.

So while I am all for trying to preserve the “privileges” I have, it is a wise man who plans for the worse… and that is why I support the Second Amendment.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mark B

Anybody with HALF A BRAIN knows that no thinking person defines a right as something that cannot be violated. Consequently, proof that a right can be violated is not proof that rights do not exist.

Also, you might be interested in the posting:

George Carlin and the Absence of Rights