Thursday, May 06, 2004


Reaping What You Sow

Both the civilian contractors accused of mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Jose Padilla are United States citizens. The contractors are entitled to the usual protections of the Bill of Rights, including the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, the right to know the charges against them, and the writ of habeas corpus to test the legality of their detention if they are placed in jail. According to the Bush Administration, however, Jose Padilla, who has never been charged with any crime, is not entitled to any of these protections.

We are likely to see more revelations in the mistreatment of prisoners, in Iraqi, in Afghanistan, and in Guantanamo Bay. Numerous reports of mistreatment have surfaced over the past several months. But until now there have been no pictures to prove these allegations, only the statements of prisoners, which can easily be dismissed because they come from people who are deemed enemies of the state. We have no idea how many more instances of mistreatment and possibly torture have occurred, because the treatment of prisoners has largely been shrouded in that secrecy with which this Administration is so fond.

The Administration, and particularly Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, have been cavalier about American obligations under international law, including the Geneva Convention. International law and transparency, we are told, are unnecessary because, unlike all of the other countries in the world, we are Americans, and we naturally believe in human rights and the rule of law. We need no special incentives to be good. But if history teaches us anything, it is that when governments, no matter how well they think of themselves, decide to free themselves from constraints, they become unconstrained, and when they refuse to make themselves accountable, they abuse their power. The only thing that has been lacking until now has been the proof of what everyone should already have known: that unchecked power leads to hubris, hubris leads to corruption, and corruption leads to violations of human rights.

Americans are proud of their devotion to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But these cannot exist without institutional preconditions: they cannot exist if government officials insist on complete secrecy, mock international covenants, and refuse to allow their actions to be tested and constrained by law.

This Administration wanted secrecy. It wanted to be free of legal constraint. It wanted to do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted without ever having to be called to account for it.

Now it is reaping what it has sown.


If people are talking behind your back, congratulations. It means you
are far in front.
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