Thursday, May 2, 2013

Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties

From Glenn Greenwald's Guardian column (Report: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's repeated requests for a lawyer were ignored):
In March of last year, the New York Times' Editorial Page Editor, Andrew Rosenthal - writing under the headline "Liberty and Justice for Non-Muslims" - explained: "it's rarely acknowledged that the [9/11] attacks have also led to what's essentially a separate justice system for Muslims." Even if you're someone who has decided that you don't really care about (or will actively support) rights abridgments as long as they are applied to groups or individuals who you think deserve it, these violations always expand beyond their original application. If you cheer when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's right to counsel is denied, then you're enabling the institutionalization of that violation, and thus ensuring that you have no basis or ability to object when that right is denied to others whom you find more sympathetic (including yourself).


For those who are still having trouble comprehending the point that objections to rights violations are not grounded in "concern over a murderer" but rather concern over what powers the government can exercise - just as objections to the US torture regime were not grounded in concern for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - perhaps the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine can explain the point, from his 1795 A Dissertation on the First Principles of Government:
"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."
That's the same principle that led then-lawyer-and-revolutionary John Adams to vigorously defend five British soldiers (of the hated occupying army) accused of one of the most notorious crimes of the revolutionary period: the 1770 murder of five colonists in Boston as part of the so-called Boston Massacre. As the ACLU explained, no lawyers were willing to represent the soldiers because "of the virulent anti-British sentiment in Boston" and "Adams later wrote that he risked infamy and even death, and incurred much popular suspicion and prejudice."
Ultimately, Adams called his defense of these soldiers "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country." That's because Adams understood what Paine understood: if you permit the government to trample upon the basic rights of those whom you hate, then you're permitting the government to trample upon those rights in general, for everyone.
This is not a platitude they were invoking but an undeniable historical truth. Governments know that their best opportunity to institutionalize rights violations is when they can most easily manipulate the public into acquiescing to them by stoking public emotions of contempt against the individual target. For the reasons Paine and Adams explained, it is exactly in such cases - when public rage finds its most intense expression - when it is necessary to be most vigilant in defense of those rights.