Benjamin Wachs: The conflicted tug of war for our souls
When President Bush announced that he had the authority to monitor our phone calls and e-mails without a warrant in order to keep us safe, it was viewed as a conflict between red state and blue: a political fight.
As the primaries heat up people are hoping that a new president – Hillary or Obama or McCain – could turn the tide back toward the inviolable rights we once, theoretically, enjoyed. It’s a lovely thought.
But the changing definition of “human rights” is happening at the local level: History will show that the major urban areas of our country – draped in shades of deepest blue – have been most aggressively advancing the idea that one man’s human rights is another man’s suicide pact.
Aggressive city curfews have been springing up in Minneapolis, Boston and Washington, D.C., – blue areas fed up with blood stains on the sidewalk.
There is also a growing realization, as with a curfew established in Rochester, N.Y., that the only real solution to the depravity of the inner city is a comprehensive package of social services tied to the curfew. Kids who get caught in the curfew’s net must have their risk for killing, or dying, on the streets diagnosed.
Kids at high risk must be put on an intervention fast track regardless of whether they have committed a crime worthy of it yet.
This, just like President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, is a clear violation of basic rights, but this time there’s not a Republican in sight.
Nor is there in San Francisco, where a “Gang Injunction” severely limits the rights of specific individuals who have been identified by law enforcement as the worst of the city’s gang members. It doesn’t matter that they haven’t been convicted of a crime (at least this time): when they’re around certain areas or interacting with each other, innocent people tend to die … so their rights are being selectively taken away for the greater good.
This one can’t be blamed on the NeoCons. San Francisco is so far to the left it’s licensed to drive in Britain.
Liberal and conservative America both are slowly backing away from the idea that civil rights are inviolable and toward the idea that some negative rights – freedom from terror, from violence, from the conditions of endemic poverty – are worth sacrificing some “positive” rights for.
The emerging view is that civil rights can be capped and traded, like emissions: Some freedoms are worth trading in and others enhancing so long as the total remains constant. This new view is as driven by the plight of our own urban failures as it is fear of foreign terrorists – we know that a dense world of networked metropolises requires a different set of civic responsibilities than the world we used to belong to. We just don’t know what those new responsibilities are yet.
We’re erasing the old rules without drawing in any new ones that makes sense – and fairly often we hate what we’re becoming. Americans increasingly have the feeling that it would be obvious how much we’ve crossed the line, if only we knew where it was.
I’d rather we turn around now … but if we can’t go back the way we came, I have two suggestions for proceeding toward a new moral center.
The first is effectiveness. If we’re going to impose on the rights of others, it had better be best practice.
Torture of prisoners is a perfect example: There might be a compelling argument for it if it worked, but study after study has shown that it generates less reliable information than conventional interrogations. Any good information it does provide needs to be verified through old-fashioned detective work anyway.
So, if it doesn’t better safeguard our lives, and horribly wounds another human being, let’s not do that. Surely any society with a moral center can agree.
The other suggestion is transparency. The only way civil rights can be bent without society careening into dictatorship is if it’s done out in the open, where everyone can see what’s going on. There can be no secrets – whether for national security or urban crime prevention – when it comes to basic human dignity. If the only way to justify a suspension of rights is to keep it from the public, then it has no place in a democratic society.
These are strong safeguards, but they’re surely insufficient. We need more. But right now we’re on track to get much less, because human rights are seen as part of a political fight – red versus blue – instead of as a conversation about the American soul.
It’s a conversation we desperately need to be having.
It’s too late to ask if civil rights violations can happen: They’re already becoming matters of policy at every level of government. If we don’t come up with new guidelines for legitimate and Illegitimate abuses of civil rights, or if we tacitly decide there is no such thing as an illegitimate violation of rights, then we will destroy ourselves.
Benjamin Wachs writes weekly for Messenger Post Newspapers' online and print editions.