Human Failings

The crowning disgrace of this country's five-year experiment with one-party Republican rule was surely the passage of a bill on September 29 that sanctioned abusive treatment of prisoners in the "war on terror," banned habeas corpus claims for those identified
as "enemy combatants," and allowed the president to place that designation on anyone, including U.S. citizens.

Even with their president's approval ratings at Nixonian levels, and their own sinking below that, congressional Republicans were able to muster one last grand gesture of disciplined subservience to their only master, power itself. Their logic was best expressed by Senator Arlen Specter, who declared, "I can't support [this] bill. … I'd be willing, in the interest of party loyalty, to turn the clock back 500 years, but 800 years goes too far." And then he sucked it up and voted yea to the 12th century.

Democrats opposed the bill but elected not to fight or filibuster. Perhaps it was a reasonable calculation: A filibuster would have failed, and many days' worth of headlines would have shifted the agenda to President Bush's preferred frame-we Republicans are the only things holding back the coming Islamofascist caliphate.
But why was the calculation reasonable? What created the political conditions that made torture not only a political issue, but one in which the moral absolute-"don't torture"-became the losing side?

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There exists in this country something called the "human-rights movement." Its key organizations-Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others-are well funded and respected, and have had some notable successes. But as a political force, unfortunately, they were not strong enough either to force the Republicans to balk at this bill or to force the Democrats to see that they could withstand the political fallout of the moral stance. Why?

It's not that they didn't work hard enough or muster good arguments or mobilize their members. But three factors limited their ability to influence the recent debate. First, all three organizations have been under sustained attack. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, both of which operate from the belief that credibility and truth have a power of their own, have been deemed "controversial" for the very act of telling the truth, the first for the use of the accurate word "gulag" to describe the network of secret cia prisons that Bush later promised to close, the latter for its reporting on the Lebanon War.

Second, these organizations have generally eschewed politics. They were founded during the high tide of legal liberalism, the era when the prevailing assumption was that the true path to justice ran not through Congress but through the courts. It was the era in which organizations with names that end with the phrase "Legal Defense Fund" or begin with the phrase "Lawyers Committee for" were created. And while several have recently changed their names (the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights became Human Rights First), those assumptions are deeply rooted.

Finally, the human-rights movement, to a greater degree than just about any advocacy community, depends on and prides itself on bipartisan support. And with good reason. The cross-party alliances they formed involve not just the familiar dying remnant of moderate Republicans, but genuine conservatives who hold real power in their party: Religious conservatives such as Senator Sam Brownback and Congressman Chris Smith join forces on international human rights, and libertarians like former Congressman Bob Barr back the aclu on domestic privacy issues. The human-rights movement is reluctant to jeopardize those alliances.

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But the military detainee bill put the value of these bipartisan alliances to the test. When the question was called, where were those Republicans? I suspect Specter spoke for all of them: Nothing is more important than power.

In such circumstances, the human-rights movement has to learn what other advocates learned earlier: Social change
is a matter of political power. The human-rights movement will have to go beyond persuading those who hold power, using the tools of truth and legal argument, but will also have to join the fight to change the basic structure of power in American society, just as the dissidents they support do abroad. That will mean joining in electoral fights, and often finding themselves fully ensconced within one party's coalition. Someday, perhaps soon, there will again be a Republican Party that responds to evidence and respects international law, the Constitution, and simple morality. But until that day comes, the strategies that worked so well in the 1980s and 1990s will fail again and again, even on the simplest moral question.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist for The American Prospect.

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