DOES THE WAR against terrorism threaten our civil liberties and diminish human rights globally? This concern has reverberated through a series of scandals and revelations: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons, warrantless wiretaps, surveillance of bank records and more. The legislation President Bush proposed last week on the handling of terrorism suspects and on eavesdropping only fueled the fears.
But is it possible that the war on terror, aside from being necessary to our national security, will also advance the cause of human rights? Consider: The two greatest triumphs for human rights in modern times, and perhaps in history, were the Allied victory over the Axis in World War II and the West’s victory over the Soviet empire in the Cold War. Each foe was not only a threat to the United States but also a monstrous enemy of human rights and liberties. To this we might add that the single greatest triumph for human rights in U.S. history was the North’s victory in the Civil War.
No other policy, law or court ruling comes anywhere close to rivaling what these victories accomplished for human rights. Nor does the record of any advocacy group, however valuable, compare with the human rights gains won by the armies of Eisenhower or Grant or the pilots who flew the Berlin airlift. Nonetheless, in each of these wars we sinned against human rights.
In World War II, we interned Japanese Americans and allied with Stalin, history’s most brutal dictator until Hitler. In the Cold War, we succumbed to McCarthyism and made common cause with Generalissimo Franco, Chiang Kai-shek and other autocrats. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus, while Gen. Sherman’s counterinsurgency tactics ran roughshod over noncombatants. Although these abuses rightly weigh on our collective conscience, they paled in comparison to the human rights issues at stake in the wars themselves. But were they necessary?
Surely, the internment of Japanese Americans was pointless as well as shameful. Unlike President Truman’s program to root out Soviet agents, McCarthy’s antics harmed the cause of anti-communism. Our alliances with Stalin during World War II and with certain rightist dictators in the Cold War (for example, we included Portugal, then a dictatorship, in NATO in 1949) were necessary, however odious. And at least some of the heavy-handed tactics of Lincoln and his generals did in fact facilitate the Union’s victory.
But none of today’s human rights lapses is nearly as egregious as those earlier ones. Despite the talk about the weakening of American democracy, the latitude of free speech, including against the war itself, has not narrowed. Government monitoring of phone and banking records has not led to a single persuasive allegation of information being used for nefarious purposes, as, say, J. Edgar Hoover used the fruits of FBI wiretaps. Nor has the abrogation of the rights of terrorism suspects given rise to charges that an innocent individual was being railroaded because of ulterior or capricious motives by any official. As for “profiling,” the fact that air travelers of Middle Eastern mien are more likely to get patted down scarcely ranks with the internment of Japanese Americans.
What of the question of necessity? This is harder to assess, but except for the inexcusable abuses at Abu Ghraib, all the measures that have stirred controversy — even those struck down by the courts — seem reasonably designed to enhance the war effort. The government has plausibly claimed that some of them, for example the tracing of bank records, have already helped to put specific terrorists out of action.
Some, most recently Colin Powell, suggest that scrupulous attention to human rights is important to American credibility in the war against terror. There is some truth to this. Our foes are eager to prove we are insincere in our professions of human rights and democracy. But is this reason enough to allow would-be mass killers to walk free or to forswear other tools that might help us capture them?
In the Cold War, it was said that strong anti-communist measures would make us like our enemies. But we were not like our enemies, and most people in the world saw that. Failure in the war against terror would force us to tighten our borders and police the homeland in ways that would be much more corrosive to our liberties. And it would strengthen totalitarian jihadists in Muslim lands.
In contrast, success will secure our own freedom and help spread liberty elsewhere. That is the goal that should be the focus of everyone who truly prizes human rights.