Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fearful times in a fearful land

When I wrote about David K. Shipler's The Rights of the People last year, I described it as recounting abuses flowing from "the choices U.S. rulers have made since 9/11."

In the second installment of Shipler's survey of what is becoming of us, Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America, he is still dissecting the erosion of protections against arbitrary government. But here he seems more aware -- and sometimes more tolerant -- of the corrosive effect that fear has had on ordinary people's courage in this ugly era.

The American experience has been a long struggle to live up to the Constitution. Periodically reversed, the effort was set back most recently after al-Qaeda hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. …

Shipler begins this volume with a dissection of the regime of torture put in place by the Bush administration. And, as in the previous volume, he will not let the reader forget that domestic "law enforcement" practices frequently violate the minds and bodies of designated unfortunates nearly as badly as the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. He reminds us that, once permitted, torture in the guise of investigation is hard to eradicate.

In Russia, wrote Vladimir Bukovsky, the human rights campaigner who spent a dozen years in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals, one czar after another "solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. . . . They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery. . . . Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists."

Two days after taking office, President Obama abolished torture. A few months later, he reduced the CIA's role in interrogations, making the FBI the lead agency. It remains to be seen whether his successor will have to abolish it all over again.

Shipler surveys abuses of immigrants by an arcane and arbitrary immigration bureaucracy that denies non-citizens most meaningful protections, especially if they are of Muslim origins. And he writes insightfully about "peace officers" who easily adopt militarized responses to protests.

Peaceful civil disobedience is still illegal activity," observed Captain Jeffrey Herold. … most police departments aren't good at calibrating their responses to the difference between breaking the law by passive resistance and by assault -- the difference between refusing to disperse, for example, and hurling stones. Departments will be criticized more for failing to preserve order than for failing to protect free speech, so they tend to expect violence and prepare for it. Like an armed force jockeying for military advantage, the police operate in a thick fog of misunderstanding and false assumptions about groups they see as adversaries. This may be the most damaging aspect of extensive surveillance: the state of mind that it creates in law enforcement. Studies of police behavior indicate that unverified intelligence and training sessions that anticipate violence can feed anxiety, leading to preemptive curbs on free expression.

On the other hand, Shipler reminds us that even in the wake of 9/11, some people in this country didn't stop voicing our dissent. Academia was sometimes unexpectedly protective of its own; McCarthyism does not always win.

In fact, the thought police in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni inadvertently documented just how robust freedom of speech remained after September 11. By collecting professors' "unpatriotic" remarks critical of American policy, they put the best of American values on display -- not the most admirable political opinions, perhaps, but the best principles, which include the right to self-condemnation even in time of war.

This two volume survey of U.S. rights does not end on a hopeful note:

Attorneys educated in the nation's finest law schools have stood ready since September 11, 2001, to rationalize torture, justify indefinite imprisonment without trial, and sanction warrantless eavesdropping on multitudes of citizens and foreigners inside the United States. Elected legislators across the country have scrambled to suppress hateful expression outside soldiers' funerals, despite long-standing prohibitions against regulating speech on the basis of its content alone. Local police have tried to enforce state laws banning flag "desecration," notwithstanding a body to judicial rulings striking down such statutes as unconstitutional. And on it goes: an unending dance between the violators and the violated, with a passive public watching, largely in silence.

... In American culture, it should take courage to defy the principles in the Bill of Rights. Instead, it seems to take courage to uphold them.

This is not a hopeful volume. A fearful country is not a good place for civil liberties. Whatever happened to our courage? That's an even larger question than Shipler's two excellent surveys engage.

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