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For the week of June 11 - 17, 2003

Opinion Columns

Process matters

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS


Does the end justify the means?

Is it right to use laboratory animals for medical experiments if, ultimately, lives are saved? And how many lives? To notch up the debate: how about using stem cells for the same end?

Was it morally right to drop atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima—civilian centers—keeping in mind it ended a war that was devouring young men at an astounding rate?

The question of ends and means is admittedly a cliché, but it is one of the more enduring philosophical and moral debates in civilized society. It also occurs to me that the degree to which the answer to that question is yes—especially in certain arenas such as geopolitical and criminal justice—is at the root of where each of us falls in the spectrum of conservative to liberal politics.

Take, for example, the death penalty. There are, I think, legitimate issues of racial bias in the death penalty process, which is, of course, the current battleground of the capitol punishment debate. However, I think the equality issue obscures the underlying dividing point.

Say a serial killer had been caught, convicted and faced sentencing. Clearly rehabilitation is not the goal. The real goal is removing that person from society in order to protect ourselves. Where the political sands settle out is how we achieve that goal. I personally, don’t agree with killing someone who has killed, even if that execution is sanctioned by the state. Put him in a little concrete room with no key for the rest of his life—sure. Death penalty proponents, for their part, have a host of well-fashioned arguments—some religious, some economic—but I think it comes down to their feeling that eliminating a monster from society, the end we’re after, trumps all else. The thinking goes: Who cares how we get there as long as we get there?

The question of process—the way in which we get from one point to some desired goals—seems particularly relevant now given the extraordinary events of the last two years: the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. There is an increasing emphasis on the end we desire and less consideration given to the path we choose to get there.

Each day, there appears to be more statements from intelligence officials indicating that much of their assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability was either misinterpreted or manipulated by political figures within the administration. At issue is the Defense Intelligence Agency, an intelligence group within the Pentagon. A September 2002 report by the group—recently leaked to CNN—suggests it was less than certain that Iraq weapons were a threat to the United States or that Iraq had close ties to Al Qaeda terrorists.

Does it matter why we went ahead and destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime? He was obviously a brutal dictator, torturing and terrorizing his own people.

I think it does matter, especially in the long-term. There are any number of brutal dictators out in the world—some may be worth losing American lives over, some may not. But when it comes to our most valuable resource, our people, the standard for why we act is much greater if we are talking about policing the world versus responding to a direct threat to the U.S. When we blur the distinctions between imminent threats to our nation and the threat foreign dictators pose to their own people, we devalue the lives of those charged with defending our nation. There may indeed be situations in which soldiers’ lives might be risked to prevent disaster in another country, but that decision has to be presented to the American electorate in those terms. When the justification for a military action evolves over time it not only belies our political system but also undermines our credibility on the world stage. If there is one stabilizing influence in the geopolitical equilibrium it is the credibility and concomitant predictability of U.S. foreign policy.

Our government is taking the same approach to the war on terrorism that it took in Iraq: Regardless of the means, the problem will be solved.

A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized its own department for practices it engaged in following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cited in the report were "23-hour lockdowns" and interfering with prisoners’ due process. In the 11 months after the attacks, 762 noncitizens were detained in connection with the investigation, with little effort given to distinguishing between terrorist suspects and others simply caught up in the dragnet. Most were held on visa violations, though few were told for months what charges they faced, if any. Many were not given access to lawyers; some were physically and mentally abused, according to the report. None of the prisoners ultimately faced terrorism charges.

To say that everything is different after Sept. 11 is oversimplifying the world we live in now. Certainly we face dramatic new dangers in terrorism. But what’s equally dramatic is the threat to due process that we are bringing on ourselves. As harsh as it may sound, due process—whether for citizens or noncitizens, who are, after all, people deserving of rights too--is as important as all the lives that were lost in the attacks. Our justice system will, presumably, be around for many generations after we’re gone. Is there really any point in fighting for a society and way of life with little semblance of justice as we know it?

Unfortunately, the task before us is even more formidable than Attorney General Ashcroft maintains. We have to eliminate the threat, which is, of course, the end we seek. However, the way we get there, following the sometimes burdensome and cumbersome road map of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is crucial. Anyone can run a police state. Witness Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. There was very little crime or civil unrest there.

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