In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.
But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King’s appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America’s best ideals.
Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King’s work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush’s oft-repeated statement–originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall–of “you’re either with us or against us” and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.
Trust, don’t ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat “either-or” dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no “or” about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.
These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King’s time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, “Civil rights”–or human rights I think he would add in today’s global context–“civil rights is an eternal moral issue…”
Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are “with us” as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are “against us.” You’re either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you’re a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.
I sometimes wonder if we’ve forgotten who the enemy is.
But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it’s a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?
I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys–such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally “courting” the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don’t believe it’s a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.
Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a “clash of civilizations.” This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates–whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now–do not a civilization make.
As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King’s message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he’s often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.