If I had to pick one single moment when the Human Rights Industry lost its focus on the objective measurement of evil, this statement by Amnesty International General Secretary Irene Khan may be it:
“A new agenda is in the making, with the language of freedom and justice being used to pursue policies of fear and insecurity. This includes cynical attempts to redefine and sanitise torture,” said Ms Khan.
She said the US claimed to be promoting freedom in Iraq, yet its troops had committed appalling torture and had ill-treated detainees. She described GuantÃ¡namo Bay as “the gulag of our time”.
She said: “The US administration attempted to dilute the absolute ban on torture through new policies and quasi-management speak such as ‘environmental manipulation’, ‘stress positions’, and ‘sensory manipulation’.”
As the unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power, the US sets the tone for governments’ behaviour worldwide, said Ms Khan. “When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity,” she said. “From Israel to Uzbekistan, Egypt to Nepal, governments have openly defied human rights and international humanitarian law in the name of national security and ‘counter-terrorism’.” [The Guardian]
Let’s unpack all that is implicit in this statement:
(1) Guantanamo, which Amnesty frequently and visibly campaigns against, is at least the moral equivalent of the Laogai or North Korea’s death camps, which Amnesty almost never visibly campaigns against;
(2) the “fear and insecurity” of many Americans is an illusion of the state, or in any event, deserves no place in the making of national policy;
(3) The greater truth of Iraq is Abu Ghraib, not the end of endless Anfals and invasions, or the fresh bloom of peace, prosperity, love, and even some semblance of freedom (Iraq now scores the third-highest freedom index in the Middle East, excluding Israel);
(4) there is no moral difference between waterboarding a grand total of three terrorists to foil their plans to blow up skyscrapers (all filled with Little Eichmanns, no doubt) and Uzbekistan torturing the aspirations out of an opposition activist, China shooting a Falun Gong practitioner for his kidneys … or North Korea slowly destroying 200,000 innocents in a living hell that seems unmarked on Amnesty’s globe;
(5) states torture dissidents not because it suits their interests or because they think they’ll get away with it, but because America issued them “licenses” when it waterboarded a man who murdered thousands of civilians on its own soil, and was plotting to murder thousands more. (Let me suggest another theory: if anyone has granted a license to commit abuse with impunity, it’s a Human Rights Industry that was too preoccupied with Gitmo to take up the causes dissidents in distant dungeons, or to recall that real gulags still exist, unmourned by Amnesty. This is not to suggest that America is above licensing evil, though Amnesty is just as guilty of moral default in the case of the world’s worst ongoing atrocities, which are happening in North Korea today. If there is a perfect word to describe the amount of attention Amnesty pays to the people of North Korea, that word is “token.”)
There is, however, a problem with throwing away your objective standards: you never know when you’ll miss them.
Paying her first visit to Asia as the top US diplomat, Clinton said the United States would continue to press China on long-standing US concerns over human rights such as its rule over Tibet.
“But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis,” Clinton told reporters in Seoul just before leaving for Beijing. [Agence France-Presse]
But — other than thinking beings with powers of reason and judgment — who are we to say that one is different than the other? Who are we to say that America has any moral authority to accuse anyone else?
T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said the global rights lobby was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by Clinton’s remarks.
“The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues,” he said.
“But by commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future US initiatives to protect those rights in China,” he said.
Students for a Free Tibet said Clinton’s remarks sent the wrong signal to China at a sensitive time.
“The US government cannot afford to let Beijing set the agenda,” said Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based advocacy group.
The wisdom, effectiveness, and morality of the means by which America fights terrorists are matters legitimately subject to debate by people of conscience. I would expect classically liberal human rights activists, who are usually distinguishable from the angry nihilists who sometimes ally with them, to take a vigorous part in that debate. But the suggestion of moral equivalence between the gulags of totalitarian states, on one hand, and the detention and “aggressive” interrogation of terrorists — when the alternative is the death of innocent people — does not so much prove the truth of the matter asserted as suggest that the nihilists have hijacked the moral rudder of classically liberal values. To equate Guantanamo with atrocities on every scale (Pravda, no less, recently compared it to Auschwitz) has now become a popular device of tyrants and those who enable them, and of the intellectually and morally lazy. The result is a blurring of the world’s conscience, the loss of any ability to make moral and numerical distinctions and assign our priorities accordingly. That is exactly what plenty of those who blurred these standards must have intended, but I suspect that a much larger number just followed the bleating herd.
The temptation of this moral laziness may result, in part, from the complexity of the questions Guantanamo raises, and the relative infrequency with which those questions are plausibly answered: What are we willing to do to one man to save thousands from him? Can a clear line be drawn to limit the state’s power to torture? How effective are tactics such as waterboarding? What judicial procedure is appropriate for people who hide in lawless places, operate clandestinely, and respect no standard of civilization? What better alternatives should we consider? (I posit that it is the height of hypocrisy to excoriate Gitmo and America from a place that is safer because Gitmo’s occupants are there, and yet to slink away when the discussion shifts to who else will keep these people out of the world’s schools and subways. I ask again: what else is to be done with them? We’ve heard Amnesty’s answer, and we now know the result of heeding it.)
As for Mrs. Clinton, perhaps they’re being too hard on her. She has only the meager ration of conscience that God gave her, and she knows how her bread is buttered. What else did we expect?
I have no doubt that Amnesty’s hyperbolic rhetoric pleased many of its members and raised a lot of money at that time. It may even have played some part in making Hillary Clinton the standard-bearer of America’s interests and values. It’s also why I cannot take Amnesty seriously anymore — I am a former member — and I know I’m not alone in this belief. Amnesty’s decline into irrelevance will probably take many years, but the real victims of its moral retardation are only starting to feel the lash on their backs.
Related: Greetings, lurkers! Being loved is still overrated:
- Canadians love Barack Obama so much they’re pulling out of Afghanistan.
- Europe loves Obama so much it won’t send more troops.
- Russia loves Obama so much it got us kicked out of a key logistical base for Afghanistan.
- Iran loves Obama so much it turned away his ping-pong emissaries.
- North Korea loves Obama so much, it’s honoring him with a fireworks display.
- The wacky left does not love Obama anymore. It’s already calling him a war criminal. Sigh.