Posted by Brad @ 12:39 pm on January 28th 2011

The Exportation of American Values

I think it’s easy for people to mitigate the harms of our country’s systemic and overwhelming move away from a default protection of civil liberties and human rights towards a much more militarized police-statish view of guilty until proven innocent an the new default assumption that the government ought to have the power to do anything it like with people it classifies a certain way. After all, most people figure, it’s only “the worst of the worst” that get subjugated to indefinite detention, torture, extraordinary rendition, and the host of other extra-legal measures we routinely take in treating terror suspects (or whoever we deem a person of interest as it relates to national security; see Manning, Bradley), and, as far as the other stuff goes – a total reversal of any expectation of privacy or due process if it relates to national security – if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to fear, right?

While I and other civil libertarians generally push back against all that in a variety of ways, I think one of the spheres that often gets overlooked is the message America’s behavior in these regards send to the rest of the world. In the wake of 911, we already saw most of the world’s brutal regimes slip like a hand in a glove into the habit of using “terrorism” as an all-encompassing catch-all to justify whatever behavior they feel like pursuing. This has been used to justify everything from freedom of the press in Russia to torture in China and Iran to outright genocide in places like Sri Lanka, and there is a very strong sense in the world community that America, which many looked to as the ultimate judge of moral standing (even if they disagreed with our judgments and resented its self-appointed role as Moral Arbiter), has lost something essential in no longer being able to take the high ground and demand adherence to a certain standard of behavior. What’s more, America, more and more, has seemed to shy away from taking strong positions in these cases – because what can it say? – and, when it does, other countries are increasingly confident there’s fuck-all we can do, mired as we are in Iraq and Afghanistan, outside of strongly worded letters.

We talk a lot about exporting liberalism and democracy, but we rarely talk about the flipside even though, in the case of the War on Terror, one of our biggest legacies may be the instantiation of a new catch-all designation designed to justify and obfuscate human rights abuses, one that was perfected and spearheaded not by Bosnia or China or Iran, but by the United States itself.

You don’t often get a more stark illustration of this than this story out of Afghanistan:

Afghan justice and security officials want to adopt the U.S. practice of detaining suspected insurgents indefinitely without trial, according to senior U.S. and Afghan officials involved in efforts to have the government in Kabul take control of detention operations in the country….

An Afghan-run system of detention without trial has yet to be approved by President Hamid Karzai, who has complained repeatedly about the U.S. policy of holding his citizens for years without civilian legal review. But senior officials of his government have voiced support for the move to achieve what they regard as an even more important goal: taking charge of detentions from the U.S.-led NATO coalition.

The U.S. government had been reluctant to transfer more authority over detained insurgents to the Afghan government because of concern that many would be released if they were tried in criminal courts…..

Although U.S. officials had hoped that the Afghan changes would be spelled out in a presidential decree and promulgated before parliament convened – under Afghan law, the president can make laws by fiat when the legislature is in recess – a draft decree has yet to reach Karzai.

And while you may trust this power in the hands of the United States government – although I’ve no idea why you would – anybody want to take the bet than in five years’ time those Afghanis languishing in black site prisons, detained and tortured for years without charge, are, in fact, active insurgents, and not just a grab bag of dissidents and political inconvenients?

We have only ourselves to blame.

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