Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Thursday, September 19, 2002
"If you don't cooperate with us," Higazy recalled the agent saying, "the FBI will make your brother upstate live under scrutiny and will make sure Egyptian security gives your family hell."

Remember Bush telling the UN how in Iraq, "[t]ens of thousands of . . . ordinary citizens have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment"? Go read this story and tell me exactly how we can take the high moral ground on that charge. Fine, it's not "tens of thousands." And no, we don't use summary execution or physical torture. No, Ashcroft is not "equivalent" to Saddam, either in motive or method. But damnit, the very fact I have to sit here and make these distinctions in order to stave off an objective judgment of American hypocrisy pisses me off! If you're going to publicly denounce a tyrant and urge military action against him, it behooves you to make sure that the distinction between your behavior and the acts you accuse him of is clear as a matter of principle, not just of degree. And when our agents are stooping to the level of threatening someone's family, there ain't a whole lot of degree left in my book. Mind you, I'm not against this kind of treatment--or worse--against people we know to be terrorists. Ramzi Binalshibh? The guy who was bragging about 9/11 on Al-Jazeera? Fine. Take him to a nice little suite in Yemen and break out the pliers and blow torches. But a freakin' exchange student? (One who actually goes to class, even.) Against whom all you have is a suspicion that he might possibly own a radio? Welcome to America, home of the free. By the way, you'd better sign this confession or we'll see to it that your mom gets a visit from the gestapo.

And even apart from these niceties of principle, how do these rights violations even help make us safer? We desperately need the intelligence and cooperation of our residents and citizens who have ties to the countries and communities from which these threats have emerged. But what person in their right mind would come forward voluntarily to report suspicion at the likely cost of indefinite incarceration? We should be thanking such people, making them media heroes. Not costing them their livelihoods. Damnit, this pisses me off.

Look, I know the feds are trying to prevent another 9/11. I know they have to make a lot of judgment calls and choices between lesser evils that are easy for someone like me to sit here and second-guess without any responsibility for what might happen if they screw up. That's why we need principles. That's why we need rules of law that bind even--no, particularly--the people who we send out there to do the dangerous and dirty work of chasing the bad guys. Of course in the heat of the moment the chance of preventing a catastrophe is going to feel like it outweighs the importance of following the pesky technicalities. But ultimately it's the pesky technicalities that separate us from Saddam. That's why the greatest thing about this country--the thing that makes all the other great things about us possible--is the amount of effort we put into discussing, enshrining, protecting, and enforcing them. That's why the understandable tendency to make exceptions to them in times like this is so dangerous. That's why, even though I'm inclined to think that in this instance the world will be a better place if we take out Saddam, I find myself leery of jumping on the "preemptive force" bandwagon without making some effort to discern exactly what the operative principle is. So we can make sure it is applied with integrity. So we have an airtight answer to the people who will ascribe to us the worst of motives. Because you don't have to be a knee-jerk pacifist or anti-American to think that's a valid question. And it doesn't help that here we have Ashcroft (who I also don't doubt means well) trying to "preempt" domestic violence by treating innocent people like criminals--worse than criminals, who at least have rights. Innocent people. Loyal American citizens. Ones who were trying to help.

I'd really like to see more focus on this in the blogosphere. I'm not saying there hasn't been any. But it always seems more fun to dole out yet another fisking to some "idiotarian." That served a purpose, but it's getting old. I'm starting to feel like remaining true to the title of my site will require me to start going around fisking fiskings just because they're getting too complacent. I think we've dragged Chomsky's body around Troy a sufficient number of times. How about we put some of that energy into actually making sure our government doesn't vindicate him?

(Well, this was definitely a post. But I suspect Adam will give me a dispensation for it.)

Update: One response leads me to believe I wasn't sufficiently clear. I am NOT trying to make the "our-hands-are-not-clean-therefore-we-can't-do-anything-about-Saddam" argument. Rather, I'm saying, "Since we have to do something about Saddam, it would really help if our hands were cleaner. Can we please refrain from sticking them where the sun don't shine?"

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