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May 27, 2004

Civil Liberties Protect Govt Officials

Why are civil liberties needed?

One answer is that we fear that the worst impulses of humanity will get out of control without the restraining hand of human rights standards.

That is one clear story told by looking at the pictures and reports emerging from Abu Ghraib.

But there is another reason for civil liberties, where we fear an all-too-normal impulse, namely covering your ass, will lead to violations of rights.

Apparently, on top of the indignity of torture at Abu Ghraib, it turns out almost none of the prisoners were linked to the insurgency. And almost no useful intelligence was gained from those prisoners.

So why were these prisoners held so long in such terrible conditions:

In general, said a senior Army officer who served in Iraq, many of the prisoners held in the isolation wing at Abu Ghraib were kept there long beyond any period of usefulness because "no one wanted to be responsible for releasing the next Osama bin Laden."
This is the best argument against giving officials discretion over our rights.

It's not that they will violate them out of viciousness-- although they may -- but because sacrificing those rights may just be seen as a way to protect their career to avoid blame.

Which is why civil liberties are so useful.

As long as the standards are tough and inflexible, officials cannot be blamed if they follow such standards and release people when they have no proof of their guilt.

Discretion creates a chance to blame such officials, so therefore endangers innocent people deeply, since officials then have to fear for their careers if they, by their own discretion, release a person who later turns out to be guilty, even if there was no real evidence at the time to hold them.

Civil liberties, the "Miranda Rule"-- all get vilified when something goes wrong and a released prisoner commits a crime. Good. Better the abstract principle get blamed then the officials who released them, or otherwise those officials would never release anyone, innocent or guilty.

Posted by Nathan at May 27, 2004 06:01 AM