Compensating the innocent
This week the Supreme Court of the United States once again documented the compassionate and law-abiding nature of our people and government. When an innocent German citizen was kidnapped, tortured and detained for more than six months, it was a failure of our anti-terrorism intelligence. When the admittedly innocent man was denied any form of compensation by our government and our judiciary, it was a failure of our conscience.
Khaled el-Masri was picked up while vacationing in Macedonia and transported by the CIA [through "extraordinary renditition"] to a squalid prison in Afghanistan before being dumped in remote Albania without ever being charged with a crime. His account of what he endured, and his apparent innocence, have been documented by several western investigations, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel claims that Condoleeza Rice acknowledged off-the-record that el-Masri's kidnapping was a mistake.
In fighting a war with terrorists, it is probably unavoidable that mistakes will be made and that some of those mistakes will be well nigh unforgivable. Still, if we expect to maintain some degree of respect and moral authority with the other nations of the world, we should at least try to pay for our mistakes. Compensation is paid to innocent victims in Iraq on a daily basis. It is incredible to remember the out-pouring of affection that Americans enjoyed immediately after the 9/11 attacks and the influence we could exert internationally. It is more incredible to think that we have completely wasted and squandered that moral authority and goodwill in the few years since by heavy-handed tactics and arrogance.
Even more distressing to U.S. citizens is the recognition that the "State secrets privilege" that was relied upon to dismiss el-Masri's claim for compensation was based on the coldwar-era U. S. v. Reynolds case decided in the 1950s. In Reynolds, the government denied discovery of plane crash investigation results to the widows of three civilians killed in a U.S. bomber crash, where the government claimed revealing the investigation results would damage national security. The results of the Reynolds crash investigation were released, just in the past few years, and demonstrated that the only injury the government would actually have suffered had it been released back in the 50s was embarrassment.
As a nation, we are wealthy enough to pay for our mistakes. Whether the issue is global warming or state-sponsored terrorism, we should be at the forefront of solving problems and making the world safer. Our economy should be benefitting from the economic and technological impulse of addressing global warming and pollution concerns. Our government is robust enough to withstand disclosure of its mistakes, and in fact it would probably be stronger if its mistakes were catalogued rather than being buried or arrogantly ignored. Certainly our credibility would be enhanced. As citizens, we should demand more: we should insist that our leaders give more time to investigating and addressing the real issues that affect all of us, and less time to investigating whose feet are under what stall of a mens' room.
As someone else has already pointed out, when the American colonies had only four million souls, they could produce Washington and Jefferson, Franklin and Adams. Now we have more than 250 million people, and our current leaders are the best that we can do? I think those founders would shudder at what happened to el-Masri if it had happened on their watch; I believe they thought they had created a nation of limited government where it could not happen that an innocent person could be kidnapped, held for months under despicable conditions, tortured, dropped by the roadside and then denied compensation--all in the name of freedom and democracy. There is a hint here of the famous post-Nazi era quote that went something like this: "they came for the Jews and no one cared; they came for the Communists and no one cared; they came for the Gypsies and no one responded; they came for me and there was no one left to object".