Why Human Rights are More Important than National Security

On Friday, the morning after the Democratic debate, I was stunned to

read in the War Room column over in Salon that Governor Bill

Richardson had said the wrong thing about national security versus

human rights. Tim Grieve wrote, "We're not sure which office Richardson

is seeking these days, but he came pretty close to disqualifying

himself from either of them last night when he insisted that human

rights are more important than America's national security." I'm not

sure what planet Tim Grieve is living on, but on our planet, it is

human rights that are precious and rare and always to be preserved and

"national security" that is ever and anon a cant boondoggle. I was not

alone in my dismay. I read War Room almost everyday and have liked

Grieve's posts in the past. When I first read what he was saying, I

thought he was joking; so did other readers. The entry got 57

responses. Almost all of them were outraged, and several called on Tim

to explain himself. He never did.

Human rights are defined, most notably in the U.S. Bill of Rights. They

are defined because the Founding Fathers realized that if they were

not defined, they would be more likely to be abrogated or lost

entirely. The Founding Fathers understood the temptation on the part

of governments to give and remove human rights arbitrarily, because

they had experienced such things before the Revolutionary War -- in the

Stamp Act, in the quartering of British soldiers on American

households, and in illegal searches and seizures, in no taxation

without representation. They recognized that although British Law

customarily acknowledged various human rights, it was essential to

name, codify, and write them down to make it less likely that they

could be taken away.

Human rights are profoundly local -- they reside in individuals.

According to humans rights theory, if someone is human, he or she has

the same rights as every other human. The rights of American citizens

as described in the Bill of Rights have been expanded and extrapolated

around the world so that they apply not only to us but to everyone.

While in the U.S. this idea is a bit controversial, in other countries

it is standard, accepted, and cherished. The codification of human

rights, and the widespread acknowledgment of this, is one of the

things that makes the modern world modern. To roll back human rights,

even for some individuals, is to return to a more primitive,

hierarchical, and un-American theory of human relations. One example,

of course, concerns women. Can women routinely be imprisoned, sold,

mutilated, or killed by their relatives? U.S. law says they cannot; in

practice, many are, but no one openly promotes what many secretly do.

If a candidate, even a Republican, ran on a platform of reducing the

legal rights of women, he wouldn't get far (ask me again in 10 years,

though). Or consider lynching. The U.S. has a long tradition of

lynching. It was only after the Second World War that the Federal

Government and state governments began enforcing their own

anti-lynching laws. This was a victory for human rights. Do you want

to go back? The Republicans would like you to, in the name of: "national security."

Guess what? There is no such thing as "national security"; it's a

concept that not only hasn't been defined, it can't be defined. It is

a psychological state. The very phrase describes an impossibility. All

boundaries in the U.S. and in every other country are porous. Planes

come and go, as do ships, trains, trucks, autos, information

superhighways, human relationships, and human emotions. In addition,

the smaller any threat becomes, the less safe we are against it. We no

longer live in the world of Mutually Assured Destruction, where our

thousands of warheads aimed at the Russians protected us,

psychologically, from their thousands of warheads aimed at us. Since

the end of the Cold War, threats have gotten smaller and more

invisible. Where is that suitcase of nuclear material? Where is that

vial of anthrax? But as they have gotten less easily detected, they

have also gotten more local. 9/11 is what we always think of when we

think of a breach of national security, but in fact, the destruction

was not national, or even city-wide, or even district wide -- although

the World Trade Center was less than a mile from the New York Stock

Exchange, the NYSE was only closed for six days after 9/11.

The phrase "national security" cannot mean anything in a nation of

almost 10 million square miles. The Bush administration and the

corporatocracy knows this perfectly well. Witness how our chemical

plants have not been secured from the possibility of terrorist

attack -- there are too many of them, and the likelihood of any one

getting attacked is too small to make it worthwhile for either the

nation or the chemical industry to fortify them. The Dubai Ports deal

of a couple of years ago demonstrated the same understanding on the

part of the administration, that "national security" is merely

rallying cry for fear.

The Bush administration has spent some trillions of dollars (I shrink

from naming a figure, since, as big as it is, it is surely a lie) to

attack a nation of a mere 437,000 square miles. In doing so, they have

chosen to ignore such items of U.S. national security as public health

and infrastructure maintenance. The population of the U.S. is

demonstrably poorer, hungrier, less healthy, more homeless, more

likely to be injured in an infrastructure failure, and more likely to

suffer from a weather related loss than it was before the Bush administration came into office. A huge debt means that the economy is

more likely to fail. The prospects of our children for a peaceful and

prosperous future are worse. Nothing that the Bush administration or

the Republicans or the Military Industrial Complex has done in the

last seven years of foolish incompetence and braggadoccio has

benefited the nation as a whole, though it has benefited a small class

of investors and government cronies. As a result of the Iraq War and

the Bush attack on the Constitution, I can be afraid of the

obliteration of the entire idea of the U.S. -- I am afraid of that, thanks

to the tyrannies of the Bush administration and the professions of the

current crop of Republican candidates -- but not of the obliteration of

the U.S. itself. Indeed, the war in Iraq shows more than one thing about

the idea of national security, because even though the Iraqis have

been attacked by the largest military in the world, they have been

damaged but not subdued. The same would be true of the U.S., no matter

who attacked us.

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats recognize, at least

intuitively, that "national security" is a code word for tribalism,

while "human rights" is a code word for the rule of law. Governor

Richardson was straightforward in acknowledging this fact, and

deserves praise rather than blame, especially from a writer for Salon.