Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sincerity in Moral Objections

If people claim to object to X as a general matter, but their objections to X are raised only when someone from the opposite political party can be blamed, and if they likewise ignore much more substantial instances of X, then I suspect that their objections to X are rooted more in political partisanship than in a sincere moral position.

Thus, for example, when many commentators were complaining about the Patriot Act provision allowing the FBI to subpoena a suspect's library records, my test for whether they were really that worried about privacy was whether they raised similar objections to the fact that all of us (not just terrorism suspects) have to file much more intrusive tax forms with the government every single year, providing numerous details that are overwhelmingly more private than anything that could conceivably be in a library record.

A similar test of sincerity could be raised about the torture issue. Consider a recent and persuasive New Yorker article by the always-worth-reading Atul Gawande:
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

* * *

Most hostages survived their ordeal, Fletcher said, although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

* * *

Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.

* * *

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.
Douglas Berman of "Sentencing Law and Policy" points out that "while a few hundred accused terrorists and murderers have lots and lots of constitutional lawyers and activists running to court on their behalf, many thousands of lesser criminals confined to the hellhole of supermax prisons languish with very few persons even thinking about their plight, let alone fighting in court on their behalf."

The answer is not to be less concerned about the handful of people tortured by the CIA. The answer is to show a proportionate amount of concern about what is effectively torture elsewhere, even if there's no partisan gain to be had. That is, someone who is sincerely concerned about torture should spend MUCH more effort writing and agitating about things done in America's prisons every day. Solitary confinement is one thing to oppose; here's another cause.


Blogger Bobar the Bobarian said...

I think that in many ways the typical US prison experience is as terrible as anything that occurred in Guantanamo or wherever. In the US prison system however, the torture is often inflicted by the other prisoners. The feact that a variety of politicians have made jokes about the idea of prison rape truly offends me.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

I agree with you on the second point (though I think liberals are pretty good about fighting horrible domestic prison conditions for normal criminals -- there's been a lot of civil rights litigation about overcrowding, medical neglect, etc.).

But I think you're wrong on the first. One's sources and amounts of income and tax-deductible expenses are not more private, and certainly not overwhelmingly more private, than one's library records.

I mean, really, what's all that private? How much money you make? Your bank knows that, your credit card companies, many of your co-workers, everyone if you're a government employer, your landlord, etc. etc.

Who your employer is? Pretty public and, for most people, not particularly personal. Tax-deductible expenses? Again, not terribly personal, and you can always just take the standard deduction.

Other than stuff like my SSN and address, which the government has anyway, I wouldn't see myself particularly injured if my tax return were published in the newspaper.

Compare library records, which, like internet searches, could contain things like sex manuals, "how to deal with your pyromania," the Communist Manifesto, etc. Also, one's reading is expressive and (potentially) political. Exposure of one's reading is potentially chilling of valuable speech in a way that exposure that, say, one had a lot of capital gains this year isn't.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Paul --

There are people who know my library records too (librarians, for example, as well as anyone who stood next to me in the line to check out materials!)

So that doesn't resolve the issue. For me, I think of it this way. What information would I rather see handed over to a neighbor, to you (or any other friends), etc.? The fact that I checked out some cheap thrillers from the library, or all of my financial information (including SSN, income from all sources, donations that could have been made to all types of entities, etc.)? To me, it's overwhelmingly the latter information that I'd rather keep as private as possible.

And moreover, one has to weigh the numbers involved here. The FBI has at most asked for a few hundred people's library records (right?) over a period of several years. But there are about 100 MILLION people who have to volunteer their time and money to fill out extensive forms on the government's behalf.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

I agree with you on the numbers -- it certainly is burdensome to impose what must be billions of dollars worth of cost on the economy to make people fill out a bunch of tax forms. But that's not a privacy objection, that's a general objection to obnoxious bureaucracy (and probably a problem that we can't avoid if we want a progressive tax system, though we can probably make it less senseless).

But I think our very different intuitions about the relative privacy importance of reading vs. money just highlights the difficulty of this sort of question. You'd much sooner publish your library records than your tax return, I'd much sooner publish my tax return (sans identity theft and stalking information) than my library records. Most of the injury in either case would be subjective: which would be more embarassing?

Is either more objectively personal? Well, it's hard to know how to make that kind of judgment. Either can be used against someone -- I tend to think that revealing one's donations is less potentially damaging than revealing one's books, but reasonable people can disagree, cf. NAACP v. Alabama...

1:21 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Well, think of it this way: If it turns out that you read the Communist Manifesto, that doesn't really tell anyone about your political sympathies . . . maybe you were reading it for a class, or maybe out of curiosity, or specifically for the point of disagreeing with it. But if you donated money to a Communist-run charity, well, that's a much clearer indication of your beliefs and values.

3:12 PM  

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