Blogs > Liberty and Power > G. I. Justice

Dec 9, 2006 5:25 pm


G. I. Justice



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

The government gives us our rights.

Or so many Americans have been taught to believe.

Now the authors of the U. S. Constitution were far from perfect – to put it mildly. But they would never have dreamed of claiming that they were giving people rights. Alexander Hamilton, for example, wrote that

natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race, and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of justice. Civil liberty, is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent on human will and caprice; but is conformable to the constitution of man ....

The other framers expressed similar sentiments. But nowadays it’s common to hear that the Constitution “gives us” such rights as freedom of the press, the right to a jury trial, and so forth.

Not only does this doctrine promote the deification of the state as something beyond the bounds of ordinary morality, but it also helps to inculcate the idea that – since our rights are government issue rather than rights of humanity – those beyond our borders don’t have the same rights we do.

Which helps to explain this incident, in which U.S. troops in Iraq crush a taxi by driving a tank over it, in order to punish its driver for “looting wood.” There’s nary a sign in sight of any legal proceedings to determine what counts as looting wood, whether the driver was in fact guilty of this terrible offence, or whether destroying his only means of livelihood was an appropriate response. Nor is there any sign that he was allowed counsel on his behalf. Instead, the soldiers acted as legislators, prosecutors, judges, juries, and executioners, unprofessionally laughing and grinning as they indulged in wanton destruction.

Wouldn’t any one of those soldiers have been outraged if, back in the States, he had been accused of, say, shoplifting and, without any trial, some cops had simply settled things by torching his car?

Ah, but our rights come from the Bill of Rights, that magic piece of paper in Washington, and don’t apply to Iraqis (even though the alleged purpose of U.S. presence in Iraq is precisely to bring “democracy” and “freedom” to the Iraqis).

“But wait,” I may be told, “this is war. You can’t expect the application of legal niceties in wartime.”

But even leaving aside the awfully convenient doctrine that we can escape the burden of respecting people’s human rights simply by going to war against them – isn’t such a response an admission that U.S. troops are, indeed, at war with the Iraqi people? That admission seems to undercut the official story that the U.S. is a friend to the Iraqi people, that it has helped them establish a democratic government, and that it’s just there to help the new government keep the peace.




comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Aeon J. Skoble - 12/9/2006

Roderick, I agree entirely about both the prevalence and pernicuousness of the incorrect "we get our rights from the government" notion. I teach this disticintion in every political phil class. But RE GI wrongdoing overseas, bit of a straw man. US troops are taught that they must respect the rights of noncombatants, including their legal rights under US military law. The word "must" in the previous sentence is not only a moral "ought" but a legal requirement. Any US soldier who does otherwise is committing a crime, and knows he or she is committing a crime, and therefore ought to find that his or her next tour of duty is 15 years at Ft. Leavenworth. It's not just that should know better, they _do_ know better, so their crimes are willful and in 95% of cases quite inexcusable.

Subscribe to our mailing list