magnificent speech by Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties

In my previous post I discussed certain unhealthy effects of our current highly politicized culture, and my own relationship to these. I ended by mentioning one particular question I do happen to be (somewhat) following, this being the progressive abridgement of the core civil liberties which are at the heart of the American enterprise.

In the embedded video below filmed at Brown University in 2011, Glenn Greenwald gives an exceptionally clear and eloquent presentation (using no notes!) of the subject. Here is a brief summary:

He begins by enumerating four features of our Bill of Rights often forgotten today:

1) It is meant to be understood in an absolute sense. Other aspects of our political system involve compromise, necessarily; but this was explicitly placed beyond that realm. To be a defender of the Bill of Rights is perforce to be a civil liberties “extremist,” as it were;

2) It was intentionally set up to be anti-democratic, to protect against the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” The example Greenwald gives is that of Fred Phelps. As he says, pretty much no one likes Fred Phelps, or at least what he has to say, but all the same that 99.9% majority is not allowed to curtail his self-expression;

3) It makes no distinction between wartime and peacetime, contrary to what is often asserted. Certain other aspects of the Constitution mention war powers, but the Bill of Rights is not so delimited. (Greenwald acknowledges that precise meanings of the enumerated rights are up for discussion – for example, what an “unreasonable” search and seizure is – but not their absolute status.);

4) It simply makes no distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

He goes on to make three points about why we should all care, and care deeply, about the health of the Bill of Rights, even if we think we are “the good guys” who could never be affected by current developments:

1) History makes very clear that abridgements of liberty, while they may begin as narrowly defined, inevitably broaden out to encompass larger groups of people;

2) More immediately, said abridgments create a climate of fear which over time ends up actually changing the culture. Greenwald gives several concrete examples of this: he speaks of how innumerable people have said or written to him that they support what Wikileaks does and would like to donate to it (freedom of association), but are afraid they might end up on a government list somewhere and so have refrained. Furthermore, that nearly all of the European members of Wikileaks he knows of have either already left the organization or are contemplating doing so, not because of fears related to their own governments but rather that the United States might find a way to bring them back one day, where they will have no guarantees of due process, might end up tortured, in a cage in solitary confinement for months or years without being convicted of anything at all – like Bradley Manning – or in permanent limbo in a place like Guantanamo.

The world today knows that the US – in tragically flagrant violation of the document that is its soul – asserts limitless power over anyone they simply claim to be somehow involved in “terrorism.” And this generalized climate of fear then creates a situation of increasing self-censorship, a degraded and very dangerous state of affairs.

3) Finally, I can do no better than simply to transcribe Greenwald here (I have emphasized certain points):

The last point I want to make about why civil liberty infringements are crucial to care about even if you’re not being directly targeted by them or if you think that the only people who are are people who deserve it, is that there’s one proposition that I think history demonstrates fairly conclusively – I would even say indisputably – which is that there really is no such thing as “legitimate certainty.” By which I mean that it’s always the case in every single society that there are certain opinions, certain propositions that are deemed to be unquestionably true, and then there are other propositions that are always deemed to be unquestionably false. And the ones that are deemed unquestionably false are the ones that you’re simply not permitted to express and that have traditionally been punished if they have been expressed.

And what always happens – not sometimes, not usually, not most of the time, what always happens to every society – is that certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably correct turn out to be completely erroneous, even evil. And certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably erroneous and pernicious turn out to be absolutely right. And nobody, as a result, should be so hubristic that they believe that certainty is warranted or legitimate when it comes to empowering the government: empowering the government to ban certain opinions, empowering the government to imprison certain people who just seem definitely guilty, without due process. This certainty is completely unwarranted by even a casual review of history. And that is ultimately what civil liberties are about, is preventing the government from exerting power without checks: checks that are necessary to prevent these kinds of errors.

So we accepted the idea that it was okay to put huge numbers of Muslims into cages without due process because even those of us who kind of thought it wasn’t the right thing to do deep down believed that these people were probably guilty, because where there’s smoke there’s fire. That we didn’t just pluck them off the street randomly, that they probably, if not being the kind of terrorist mastermind that they might have been accused of being, probably on some level were kind of guilty of something and therefore belong there. And it may be objectionable in theory, but not really passionately wrong that they were being imprisoned without due process. And yet as it turns out, the vast majority of them, people who spent time in Guantanamo, have turned out to be guilty of absolutely nothing. Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson said that not only were the majority of them guilty of nothing but the Bush administration knew they were guilty of nothing but kept them there anyway to prevent the realization that they were imprisoning innocent people and to prevent people at Guantanamo from publicizing what had been done to them.

And ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 said that Guantanamo detainees have the right to habeas corpus review, the right to get into a court and ask a court to review the circumstances and validity of their detention, the Obama administration went in in each one of these cases and told the court, “we have overwhelming evidence that these people are terrorists and that they belong in Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced, just like the Bush administration announced, that there’s no reason to worry about the lack of due process at Guantanamo – these are the worst of the worst. And yet when courts finally were allowed to review the actual so-called evidence against the people who were there, the evidence justifying the accusations, the courts found in 75% of the cases – that’s the current statistic – that there was no credible evidence to justify their detention. And many of them had been in prison for 5, 6, 7, and 8 years with what our own courts found were no credible evidence. And these are the people about whom the government was saying are the absolutely clearly, unquestionably guilty ones, the worst of the worst.

Certainty is not something that anybody should believe exists. That’s why all people, but especially people with power, and the more power the more this is true, need checks, need scrutiny, need accountability. And ultimately that’s what civil liberties are designed to do. So even if you think the government is acting correctly in a certain case and are therefore willing to acquiesce to the transgression of civil liberties, the mere fact that certainty is never warranted by itself ought to lead you to find that objectionable.

Greenwald went on to document how the Obama administration not only has not rolled back the civil liberties violations of the Bush administration but in certain respects has expanded them.

The remaining 45 minutes or so are a Q-and-A.