Thursday, November 08, 2012

Obama's human rights abuses

Reasonable Americans everywhere gave a collective sigh of relief last night upon the determination that Willard "Mitt" Romney's influence on national affairs will be constrained to counting his Benjamins and punditing on Fox. It was like when you're in a group of friends and a Mormon missionary comes walking up toward you and everyone sort of looks away and hopes he'll go away and then, at the last moment, he'll start talking to some other sorry mark and everyone unconsciously says, "Whew!"

So the real-world analog to Mr. Burns/Lucille Bluth/HAL will not, repeat NOT, be lining the Oval Office with his etchings. I applaud, Mr. Obama! You saved us all from great embarrassment (and maybe a couple wars).

That said, there are still some serious problems with the Obama presidency. I'm not talking about the economy: it's a fantasy to think that recovering from the 2008 financial crash could have occurred quickly or easily (if, indeed, we are truly recovering and not just headed for a more serious crash). Obama's economic strategy has been prudent, practical, and Keynesian. He was able to deliver real results because he aimed for solutions, not miracles. No, the problems with Obama are essentially civil-libertarian problems, created in the context of the 'War On Terror.' Borrowing from the ACLU's candidate report on the president, I've listed some below. (Bizarrely, drone bombings are not mentioned on the ACLU list.)

1. Obama created an indefinite-detention system for those sad saps at Gitmo and elsewhere who are neither civilians nor POWs. They exist in a gray nether-space of legal non-status. Obama initially promised to close Guantanamo, but after Congress foiled his efforts, he appears to have embraced the Bush administration's strategy of ignoring habeus corpus for alleged terrorists.

2. Obama apparently stopped or at least cut back torture at secret prisons like Guantanamo, but did not try to prosecute or otherwise pursue those who'd committed it under the Bush administration. The ACLU reports that there have been "No reports of extraordinary rendition to torture or other cruelty under his administration," though Scott Horton disputes this (here and here). ('Extraordinary rendition' refers to the practice of switching prisoners around between governments without oversight; the US has used it to basically outsource torture to foreign governments.) So while treatment of prisoners has improved, our military (and police and intelligence forces, presumably) are still a ways from being consistently humane (under a conventional legal understanding of that term; I'm not even going to talk about the ways in which e.g. the police are inhumane in ways that aren't explicitly recognized by e.g. international law).

3. Obama embraces the PATRIOT Act just as much as his predecessor, which act e.g. allows the FBI to subpoena library records without prior court approval and place a gag-order on the persons subpoenaed (see here and here).

4. While he's made good on his promise to draw-down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's also expanded the use of drone bombings. These remote-controlled bombers are especially prevalent in Pakistan, where they sometimes blow up someone US intelligence believes to be a threat and sometimes blow up civilians (actually, the ratio is one alleged terrorist to 49 civilian deaths). (See here, here, here, and here.)

I speculate that Obama doesn't relish the chance to decimate international human rights, domestic civil rights, or blow up poor brown people. And regardless of his tastes, it's just a fact that these four areas of abuse occur within a constrained set of options. Both morally and politically, Obama's actions are calculated responses to incentives, such as the imperative to effectively prevent terrorist attacks against Americans. Plus let's not forget that there's not overwhelming outcry against these abuses: most Americans, for example support drone bombing. I can report from a meeting with my own father (who's pretty middle-of-the-road, politically) that giving police and military the authority to torture, detain, etc. when they've got 'good reasons' for doing so is a fair price to pay for the safety of his family. In short, it's not like Obama went out of his way to commit these abuses. He commits them because, basically, we want him to ('we' being both the American public and the de facto power structure of American politics).

Yet abuses they are. And as an American citizen, I'm responsible for them: they're committed by my government (which I implicitly legitimized when I voted on Tuesday), in my name, using my tax dollars. I am responsible for the people who are kidnapped, tortured, and indefinitely imprisoned in the name of American safety. I am responsible for the expanding police-state in my country. And I am responsible for the Pakistani families who continue to die from drone bombings.

Patrick Henry famously said, "Give me liberty, or give me death." I wish he'd said "dignity" instead of "liberty": just as there was never anything dignified or decent about enslaving other human beings, there's nothing redeeming or excusable about the violence and coercion employed by my government in its attempts to protect American life and happiness. And maybe this will sound hokey or fake, but for my part, I'd rather die in a terrorist attack than have even one person kidnapped, tortured, and indefinitely imprisoned without trial. My safety is not that valuable.

So: four more years. We have four more years to push Obama toward behaving like the humanitarian he presents himself as.

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