US Congress Eroding Civil Liberties (Again)

Even a single attempt at violating one’s freedoms is beyond reprehensible, especially when the culprits are our own public servants. But the fact that our politicians have sought to done so several times – in just this past decade alone – is as vile as it is disturbing. I’m not sure how Congress has the audacity to actually attempt to legislate such clearly unethical and unconstitutional laws.

The Senate plans to vote on whether to grant the office of the president the power to detain anyone around the world, without charge or evidence. As the ACLU reports:

The Senate is going to vote on whether Congress will give this president—and every future president — the power to order the military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians anywhere in the world. Even Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) raised his concerns about the NDAA detention provisions during last night’s Republican debate. The power is so broad that even U.S. citizens could be swept up by the military and the military could be used far from any battlefield, even within the United States itself.

The worldwide indefinite detention without charge or trial provision is in S. 1867, the National Defense Authorization Act bill, which will be on the Senate floor on Monday. The bill was drafted in secret by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed in a closed-door committee meeting, without even a single hearing…

…In support of this harmful bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) explained that the bill will “basically say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield” and people can be imprisoned without charge or trial “American citizen or not.” Another supporter, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also declared that the bill is needed because “America is part of the battlefield.

Click the hyperlinks within this excerpt for more detail about the provisions. Needless to say, the premise would be disquieting enough without being applicable to potentially everyone else on the planet. As if this effort weren’t pushing the standards of decency enough, a few days ago the Senate was also looking into repealing the anti-torture measures of a previous anti-torture amendment. Again, the ACLU reports:

If passed, an amendment introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to the Defense Authorization bill would roll back torture prevention measures that Congress overwhelmingly approved in the 2005 McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, as well as a 2009 Executive Order on ensuring lawful interrogations. It would also require the administration to create a secret list of approved interrogation techniques in a classified annex to the existing interrogation field manual.

In a related development, republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann renewed her attack on the prohibition of waterboarding and other forms of torture in her claim that the ACLU runs interrogations. But in fact, the director of the CIA, General David Petraeus and the Secretary of Defense (and former CIA Director) Leon Panetta have both said that the 2009 Executive Order applying the Army Field Manual government-wide and the 2005 McCain Anti-Torture Amendment work and are consistent with good national security.

As a side-note, I find it curious that the same GOP that reveres the Constitution as a sacred document, and postures itself as the true defenders of individual liberty, is behind both efforts (though by no means are all Republicans in agreement with this, nor are all Democrats guiltless). It would seem that the shrilly expressed cause for small government is suspended with respect to issues of  “national security” and “public safety.

If anyone wants to act on this, as I certainly will, click the ACLU hyperlinks to access the main articles and follow their instructions. There are both grassroots efforts, as well as counter-amendments in Congress, that are being utilized to combat this affront on our freedoms. If there’s anything that would better contribute the curtailing of our civil liberties, it’s apathy and ignorance. Don’t let cynicism or indifference facilitate these sorts of noxious efforts – however understandable such sentiments would be, given the precedence.

Free Speech

I believe that blasphemous and offensive speech are victim-less crimes. In a free society, no one has a right not to be offended. Living in such a society means hearing and seeing things that annoy, anger, or insult you. It also means that all ideas, claims, beliefs, and positions face constant challenge, debate, improvement, and exchange. It creates a marketplace of ideas to be tested, applied, or discarded.

I believe we should never censor anything for the sake of hurt feelings or being politically correct. A free society is imperative for progress, innovation, and an evolution in thinking; being bothered or outright disgusted is a small price to pay for such an immeasurable benefit. Oppressive and stifling sociopolitical environments have rarely produced as much in the way of new and beneficial ideas as their freer counterparts. Such societies are often  intellectually, ideologically, and even culturally stagnant.

Of course, even free speech has it’s necessary limits. Context and content matter, especially if the well-being of another person is on the line. The Harm Principle of John Stuart Mills comes to mind: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

But defining what is harmful is subjective enough as it is; from that point, drawing the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t is a tricky, contentious, and often arbitrary process. How do we distinguish harsh criticism from all-out hate speech? For that matter, who is to determine whether hateful sounding speech is truly worthy of suppression? What is treasonous speech versus the highly critical or contrarian kind? What is subversive propaganda versus freedom of assembly or ideological dissemination?

I believe such things, if they must be addressed, should be done so in a case-by-case basis. Attempts at establishing anything statutory or “on the books” are usually ineffective, as it could either be to relativistic, too vague, or too strict. In my opinion, there isn’t any acceptable one-size-fits-all approach to discerning the “rightness” of certain acts of expression (not that while I’ve been using the term speech up until now, I really mean human expression in general; speech is merely the more popular manifestation of this).

Given the difficulty and risk of trying to establish an objective and non-arbitrary legal standard of good and bad speech, it’s safer to accept that the benefits of such a free society far outweigh the costs incurred by those who are offended or bothered. Again, there will always be exceptions, but there you have it: exceptions, not rules.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t things out there that disgust and enrage me, things I wish could go away. I think all of us could relate in wishing that certain reprehensible or just plain stupid ideas could cease to exist. But in the real world, there would be no way of doing so without resorting to harsh authoritarian measures that would probably suppress other beneficial ideas as collateral (even then, killing the expression doesn’t kill the thought; in this case, out of sight (or sound) isn’t out of mind).

So most of us could agree on this much: we’ll put up with each other’s nonsense or offensiveness if it means none of us have to worry about being collectively stifled. It’s an uneasy contract at times, and tenuous to this day, but it’s facilitated a lot of thriving.

I should note that this issue is pervasive among both the left and the right in this country; the former is too prone to political correctness to the point of stifling honest discussion, and the latter often disallows any critical analysis of religion or the United States. Both will condemn contrary views with all sorts of melodramatic and often slanderous labels (for which the right is particularly savvy): bigot, socialist, un-American, unpatriotic, fascists, intolerant, and so on.

Thankfully, by my own experience and observation, most conservatives and liberal alike, and everyone in-between, can broadly agree on the most principle foundation of a just and progressive society. The value of free expression – and it’s promotion of dialogue and innovation – is worthy of utmost support, even at the cost of airing out some of the ugly things human beings have to offer.

Rebels Take Tripoli: Libya Nearly Free

The latest news concerning the Battle for Libya confirms that rebel forces have controlled nearly the entire capital city of Tripoli, Qaddafi’s stronghold and central command center. After six months of vicious fighting, in which the rebels were often stalemated and routed, they managed an incredible reversal: not only did the rag-tag group of irregulars manage to overrun the tyrant’s presumably strong defenses and troops, but they did so with considerable speed and coordination. They also managed to capture two of the colonel’s sons, including Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the government’s number two leader.

Obviously, Qaddafi hasn’t given up the fight just yet, even given the grim prospects (including three high-profile defections among senior officials this past week alone). His main compound in the city remains out of rebel control, and some fighting between government forces and rebel troops has continued since Tripoli was taken. Despite reports of declining moral, the loyalist forces still seem to be keeping up the fight, and the irreverent despot continues to call on his people to resist the traitors and their Western imperialist allies in NATO. But all this is to be expected from a man sooner willing to slaughter his people like rats than to relinquish power.

In my humble opinion, I believe this marks the beginning of the end for Qaddafi, even if it is precariously too soon to tell. I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect that one of the world’s most vile and oppressive regimes may soon be overthrown through a popular uprising – a very difficult feat given the overwhelming odds face (and rare if the subsequent government that follows manages to last and prove itself to be better). I cannot wait to see a Libya that is finally free after decades of brutal and often bizarre rule, a society that was once under more  surveillance than almost any other, and in which films, public gatherings and festivals, and any modicum of free expression were forbidden.

Of course, I have no delusions about the grim reality of all this: that the rebels, who’ve shown signs of fraying, may break into infighting; that their hold over the capital and the rest of the country (much of which is still out of their hands) may end up being tenuous; that their victory does not guarantee a safe and free Libya; and that there will be a very long road ahead before the nation becomes a truly stable and democratic state – if that ever even comes. We’re still waiting for relatively docile Tunisia and Egypt to progress more definitively, as the excitement over their historic revolutions has been tempered into very cautious optimism.

But my hope remains, as I’m sure it does among millions of Libyans that can already feel and enjoy the taste of freedom. They stood up to a terrifying and murderous state and refused to back down even at it’s greatest displays of brutality. What began as a medium-sized protest that was horribly suppressed turned into a sweeping movement of national liberation that transcended – albeit imperfectly – tribal, religious, and political differences. I, like many others, would’ve never thought that movement would keep it’s momentum for this long. To see people who have never known freedom be willing to die for it is a sobering and inspiring experience. I can’t imagine what it must be like, but I’m sure many Syrians are currently enduring the same reflections as they no doubt look to Libya’s progress as a sign of hope.

This recent success also raises some interesting questions: the rebels and analysts alike have attributed much of this success to  NATO’s operation. Indeed, rebel forces were saved from a potentially devastating flank attack due to NATO intervention, and the intelligence and direction provided by Western nations seems to have paid off (despite several mishaps, such as friendly fire or lack of strategic cohesion). Does this legitimize the concept of  military intervention for humanitarian purposed, which has been viewed cynically and skeptically these past few years? Will this make future Western involvement in such matters more acceptable or favorable? What are the implications for Syria, Yemen, or any other future scenario concerning a cause for involvement (although note that the Libyans actually requested such assistance, whereas no other dissidents have done so yet).

Personally, I lean to accepting a military intervention of some kind if it is requested of us and if the circumstances are dire enough to warrant it – such as government troops about to brutally put down a peaceful protest. I believe such involvement should be limited in scope, multilateral, legitimized (relatively speaking) through UN resolutions, and clearly outlined in their purpose and parameters. I know that even such a cautious and well-planned approach will still produce problems, and may even be open for self-interested abuse. I’m sure many of my readers will disagree with my stance as well. Though note, in my own defense, that I am not strongly for such a move, nor do I see it is a favorable norm; I am only inclined to accept it as a last resort and under very strict circumstances. Of course, as always, I welcome dissenting views and opinions so long as they are sincere and civil. I can be persuaded by a good argument.

In any case, putting some sort of squeeze on noxious regimes seems uncontroversial and effective enough: travel bans, well-targeted sanctions, and freezing the assets of offending officials are all ways to help out. Even diplomatic peer pressure could do it’s part, embarrassing and isolating despots while emboldening their dissenters. Currently, this approach is being applied to Syria,  whose situation is not unlike Libya: a decades-old and brutal authoritarian police state facing a belated but stubborn uprising. It remains to be seen if any of this will do much good, or if the Syrian people could endure the horrific toll of their courageous aims long enough to overthrow their oppressors. In either case, there may be a turning point not only for more freedom-fighting Arab citizens, but for foreign policy as well.

On that note, I’ll leave you all with some interesting sideshows, courtesy of the New York Times.