Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

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Lessons From Germany About Effective Prisons

While Norway appears to be the prevailing model for how to run an effective criminal justice system, the New York Times highlights another northern European country with a promising track record — this one far larger and comparatively more diverse than its more famed Nordic example. A mere glance at the typical German prison makes it resoundingly clear that Europe’s economic and political powerhouse, a nation of nearly 88 million, takes a very different approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

It would be scandalous to many Americans to treat prisoners so well. Everything from what they wear to the ambience of their cells suggests that German convicts have it far easier than they, or any criminal, should deserve. But the results bear out, with Germany doing far more than offering cushy and stimulating accommodations.  Continue reading

Americans Have the Right to Insult Police Officers

Given the frequent reports of police brutality and misconduct in the U.S., particularly during the course of pullovers and arrests, Americans might be surprised to learn that they have a well-established right to be rude and even downright nasty to police officers. As The Atlantic’s CityLab column notes:

The courts have made it clear that individuals have a right to insult police officers. In 1987, the Supreme Court decided in City of Houston v. Hill that the First Amendment allows for a “significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers,” ruling against a Houston, Texas, ordinance making it “unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.”

The case involved a gay rights activist who had been arrested numerous times for allegedly interfering with the police.

The First Amendment, the court noted, does not protect “fighting words,” statements “that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” But criticism, even when angrily voiced, is protected.

“The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority, “is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”

That case built upon the 1974 decision in Lewis v. City of New Orleans, when the court ruled against an ordinance in that city making it “unlawful and a breach of the peace for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty.”

The Lewis case involved a couple following behind a squad car that was taking their young son away. Another officer pulled them over and, after the woman got out, allegedly said, “you get in the car woman. Get your black ass in the god damned car or I will show you something.” The police officer testified that the woman said, “you god damn m.f. police – I am going to [the Superintendent of Police] about this.” The woman denied using any profanity. Either way, the court ruled that the ordinance under which she was arrested was so broad as to apply to “speech, although vulgar or offensive, that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., in a concurring opinion cited by Justice Brennan in the 1987 case, wrote that police should be able to deal with more offensive language than a private citizen—meaning that verbal abuse had to reach a higher threshold to count as fighting words when they are directed at a cop.

That abuse can run quite high and stay within constitutional bounds, something that a cottage industry of people who make a point of testing cops on their First Amendment knowledge by giving them the middle finger has proven.

Continue reading

Universal Healthcare vs. Freedom?

There is a widespread notion that providing universal healthcare, or something closer to it, comes at great cost to economic and political freedom. However, empirical evidence suggests otherwise: most of the countries that are ranked high in both economic and political freedom – many of them above even the US – offer universal healthcare systems, among other “big government” policies.

The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, bear this out in its Index of Economic Freedom, as does the libertarian Fraser Institute. And Freedom House consistently ranks “socialistic” countries at the top of political and press freedom in its reports.

There are certainly problems with this healthcare act, but state-sanctioned oppression is not one of them. Expanding healthcare, in and of itself, is not mutually exclusively with overall liberty and well-being. One could argue whether what works for other societies works for America, but that’s a different discussion compared to the idea that healthcare is, in principle, a detriment to liberty and well-being.

Syria’s Struggle and the Question of Intervention

A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 6. The US closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed. AP Photo

After nearly a year of civil strife and mass protest, the Syrian regime has still managed to cling to power, killing over 5,000 people in the process. Its brutality and cunning have so far assured its survival, at a great cost to innocent lives, and though violence is nonetheless escalating to a near-civil war, there seems to be no foreseeable end to the bloodshed.

The courage and tenacity of the Syrian people astounds me. Their efforts have been periodically written off every time the army unleashes its artillery, tanks, and snipers to obliterate any demonstration. Yet they’ve continued to reemerge against all odds, no matter how much the regime ratchets up its barbarity. It’s become a battle of willpower, a game of chicken – who will give in first?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to face such overwhelming odds without ever backing down. The choice between your life and oppression is not an easy one to make, and I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to worry about it. It seems that they have so little to lose after decades of despotism, that the risks are inconsequential. How else can we explain this so-far unconquerable urge for freedom no matter the cost?

It saddens me to see a people strive to better their conditions, only to be put down like cattle. So many innocent people have died, and continue to die even as we speak. I’m typing away about their fate, powerless to do anything about it. While I go about my daily routine in my comfortable life, their being starved, tortured, terrorized and massacred, all for the heinous crime of demanding a say in their own future.

This recent video from CNN was particularly heartbreaking. The country looks increasingly like a war zone, and neither side seems to be prevailing with any certain. I fear this conflict will continue to drag on, bleeding the country dry for some time. You can hear the deep sadness and hopelessness of the activist being interview, and most palpably the sense of frustration: while the Syrians get butchered for their efforts, the world is impotent to do anything about it (Russ and China recently vetoed a UN resolution that would have condemned the atrocities).

But what can the world do? Syria is a populous country with a far stronger state and security apparatus. It’s religious and ethnic diversity may give way to Iraq-style sectarian violence once the regime were to be toppled. Getting involved may cause more problems than anything.
Besides, no country is in the position to intervene, even if it were sure to work. Aside from the considerable lack of public support for any overseas venture, any operation effective enough to dislodge the regime would require boots on the ground, and an expensive and long-term commitment that most currently cash-strapped nations can’t afford. Furthermore, many people, me included, would doubt the humanitarian sincerity of any intervention, given the long precedent of strategic selectiveness.
So all we can do is watch and hope? Provide moral support and solidarity, but nothing more practical? Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may work, including freezing the bank accounts of state officials and banning them from travel. But will that really bring down a government fighting for its life and privilege? Who’s to say it won’t hurt ordinary Syrians more, given that they’re already enduring food and water shortages due to both government action and economic turmoil.
Its times like this that I wish we had superheroes, someone who could fly in like Superman and pummel those tanks and artillery units. I wish there was a standing UN army that could rapidly deploy to defend besieged citizens from their malicious rulers. Even in an era of increasing globalization and interconnectedness, we’re still unable and unwilling to address the periodic violence that is exercised with impunity. Some would argue that it’s for the better, given the capacity for abuse and mishandling. I sometimes wonder if someday that won’t be the case, and the world as a whole will be a better governed place.
I know that’s just the nature of this complex and disunited world; I know that there are too many dynamics and factors involved, across economic, social, political, diplomatic, and military spectrums. But that doesn’t make me any less saddened, no matter how many times I’ve had to see and study it over the years. All I can do is watch, wait, and hope. My heart goes out to the people of Syria. I think the regime is weakening, and that its fall will be inevitable. But it’ll come at a heavy cost, and there’s no telling what will come after. Syrians will have no choice but to press on. They’re fighting for their own fate after all, so perhaps it’s ultimately fitting that they do so on their terms.
Be grateful for your freedoms and comforts. Never take any of it for granted. I should be so lucky to be sitting here, in comfort and stability, upset about the fate of others fighting for what I was so fortunate to have, by mere accident of birth.

The Muzzle Awards

Each year, an organization known as the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression delivers its “Muzzle Awards” to saitrically recognize those who to limit free speech. It’s an interesting way to expose some of the egregious ways that the government and even some of our fellow citizens violate our most cherished right.

Most of the cases highlighted by the Muzzle Awards for 2011 were pretty disquieting, which is to be expected of any infringement on civil rights. I find it remarkable that so many of these things seem to happen without much news or public attention, especially considering how obviously unjust some of them were (though in fairness, most seemed to have occurred within local institutions or communities).

The eight recipients for last year are as follows:

Senates Votes to Restrict Civil Liberties

Yesterday, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which includes a nakedly unconstitutional provision that give the military power to indefinitely detain anyone deemed a national security threat without evidence or trial. They also rejected the Udall Amendment, which would have removed this part of the bill, by a wide margin of 61 to 37.

Interestingly, nearly all Republicans – the same people who drape themselves in the American flag, revere the constitution as sacred, and shrilly claim to be pro-small government – supported this effort, along with 16 Democrats. I find their justification to be laughable.

 ‎”The enemy is all over the world. Here at home. And when people take up arms against the United States and [are] captured within the United States, why should we not be able to use our military and intelligence community to question that person as to what they know about enemy activity?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

“They should not be read their Miranda Rights. They should not be given a lawyer,” Graham said. “They should be held humanely in military custody and interrogated about why they joined al Qaeda and what they were going to do to all of us.”

Indeed Mr. Graham – presumably one of our more moderate conservatives – but that’s assuming there is even proof that they are terrorists to begin with – that little bit of legal tradition that presumes innocence until *proven* guilty. How would we know the right people are being detained if there is no legal due process? Are we to take the military’s word for it? Where’s the incentive to make legitimate case for detainment if there is no limit to how long someone is held in custody without formal charges?

The problem is that many conservatives revere our military to the point of trusting it’s judgment without any real oversight. But the military is like any other institution – prone to corruption, bureaucracy, and mistakes. That is why our system is so complexly designed with numerous checks and balances and procedural safeguards. Our national security apparatus isn’t even suited for matters of law – that’s what our judicial system is for.

If anyone is curious about who supported these disquieting measures, check this list and feel free to contact them accordingly. Only two Republicans, including the libertarian Rand Paul, son of Ron, voted against the provision. The great state of Florida, where I live, was an even split: our senior Democratic senator Bill Nelson was rightly opposed to the measure, while our junior Republican senator Marco Rubio supported it (some may note the irony of a Cuban-American showing approval of such draconian measures).

Thankfully, the White House has expressed its disapproval and presumably intends to block this measure (not that it hasn’t engaged in its own legally questionable acts – recall the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, to name but one known example). Even if this struck down, the fact that our representatives would even go through with this bodes ill for the integrity of an already increasingly eroded democratic system. Given the sad historical precedent, there’s little doubt that we’ll be seeing more efforts like this in the future.

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.