Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

The Bush administration tends to view human rights and security as a zero-sum game. Because the United States faces a serious terrorist threat, it believes that some rights must be restricted. This analysis has some intuitive appeal, but is it correct? Has the administration’s willingness to sacrifice human rights for security actually made us safer?

The foreign policy team of G.W. Bush came into office ideologically disposed to view human rights as an unwelcome constraint on the sovereign latitude of the United States. A clear and early illustration was its intense opposition to the International Criminal Court. The terrorist attacks of September 11, only reconfirmed that view. The attacks were undeniably evil; punishing the perpetrators and preventing further attacks was unquestionably good; so, the administration reasoned, anything that got in the way of an unfettered response, like those annoying human rights standards, had better be pushed to the side.

That attitude has brought us a host of rights violations: the summary detention of Americans in the United States as “enemy combatants”; the ripping up of the Geneva conventions at Guantánamo; the proposed use of military commissions that lack basic due process guarantees; the misuse of laws on immigration and material witnesses to detain criminal suspects without granting them criminal justice rights; coercive interrogation techniques that amount to torture and mistreatment; and the backing of repressive regimes around the world-Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghan warlords, the Indonesian military-so long as they ally themselves with the “war on terrorism.”

A fair assessment would have to conclude that this radical rejection of human rights has not in fact made us safer. If anything, it has aggravated the terrorist threat. True, some terrorist suspects have undoubtedly revealed secrets under “stress and duress” interrogation. Others have been summarily detained. But as even Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged, the real test of success is whether the administration’s approach to terrorism is neutralizing more terrorists than it breeds. Here the available signs are negative.

Suppose we think of this issue in terms of the “swing vote” in the countries that produce most of today’s terrorists. Some citizens of these countries are committed terrorists. Nothing short of arrest or killing is likely to deter these people from carrying out their murderous plots. On the other side of the spectrum are the vast majority of people, who would never resort to terrorist violence. But what of the broad middle category, the swing voters-those who have political grievances and could be convinced to pursue them peacefully or violently?


Two things must be done to turn such people away from violence. First, they must be given a reasonable opportunity to pursue their grievances through legitimate pol...