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The Collective
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Readers of PoliBlog will no doubt have noted my increasing focus on questions of the abuse, or at least questionable usage, of governmental power. Many posts, especially over the last year or so, have focuses on things like separation of powers and checks and balances as well as general concern over the zealous pursuit of security by the current administration.

As I was watching the coverage today of the Duke rape case that ends up not being a rape case (or, indeed, any case at all), I was struck as to how the actions of Mike Nifong underscore precisely why I have been so critical of the Bush administration. It is not, I would note, about the Bush administration per se, but about the power inherent to government and the potential for abuse of that power that always lurks just beyond sight.

Mike Nifong is an actor in a portion of that governmental system who was both oriented towards providing security to his community and towards his own political ambitions. Indeed, he no doubt thought (as most politicians do) that his job was an honorable one that could be furthered by his own political power. As such, he clearly got caught up in his own personal ambition and one would assume that he thought that he was doing the right thing in regards to prosecuting persons he thought were guilty of serious crimes (although it is certainly possible that he cynically pursued the Duke case knowing that his targets were innocent).

In any event, the case underscores that members of the government, even in a democracy, can overzealously pursue their policy goals and when those policy goals are linked to issues of security (whether we are talking about crime or terrorism) the outcomes can be disastrous if the power held by the government is inappropriately applied.

Indeed, the potential for abuse grows as the power to act is concentrated in the hands of one actor or a small number of actors—as was the case here and explains, at least in part, why I have often written about executive power.

As such, perhaps those who wonder about my critiques and questions (even my interest in an assertive Congress), may understand a bit more as they consider what a Nifong-like member of the DoJ might do in the pursuit of terrorists.

Am I saying that we should therefore eschew domestic security or the much-discussion connecting of dots? No. What I am saying is that the pursuit of security needs to take place in the context of appropriate constraint and oversight. And I am further saying that unfettered exercise of executive power is more dangerous than the likely benefits of many versions of “security.” At a minimum, such policies should be pursued with a sufficient critical eye aimed at the government by the citizenry.

Remember: Mike Nifong’s efforts were focused on security: making the Duke community safer from those who might commit rape and perpetrate assault. And given that we are all more likely to be raped or assaulted than we are to be attacked by al Qaeda, one could argue that his zeal made perfect sense. However, misplaced zeal has put a number of people through a certain kind of hell for over a year and has marred the reputations of three young men.

Looking at something like this it should be clear that overzealous federal government officials could do a lot of damage to a lot of people if we aren’t extremely careful in the way we pursue security.

Indeed, zeal over terrorism has created a great deal of strife and sadness internationally.

Such factors explain why I think we need something we have yet to get from the political class: a serious assessment of where we really are in terms of threats, both foreign and domestic under the rubric of what we have awkwardly termed “The War on Terror.”

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6 Comments

  1. […] Steven Taylor talks about one reason the Duke rape case matters. I wouldn’t argue for a second that the young men in this case had crucial advantages of wealth and whitehood going for them that many, many wrongly accused people in this country do not have. The answer to that is not to wish that these boys had been railroaded, but to insist on enlarging the lesson, on bringing the same attention to fishy cases involving poorer, darker accused people. This is the kind of work Radley does, and the Innocence Project does, and the Justice Denied site. That’s at the case level. At the larger level, it’s very important to keep pushing civil liberties issues, to roll back provisions of the Patriot Act and drug war that encourage prosecutors and police to abuse their power, to beware grading law enforcement on metrics that privilege numbers of arrests and convictions rather than the doing of justice. […]

    Pingback by What It All Means, The Continuing Series § Unqualified Offerings — Wednesday, April 11, 2007 @ 8:18 pm

  2. I think we need something we have yet to get from the political class: a serious assessment of where we really are in terms of threats, both foreign and domestic under the rubric of what we have awkwardly termed “The War on Terror.”

    John Kerry was offering precisely this during the 2004 campaign and was ridiculed for it-including on this blog.

    You phrased it as Bush’s “war paradigm”
    vs Kerry’s “law enforcement paradigm” and argued that the war paradigm was better becase 1) we knocked out a government in Iraq that supported terrorism and 2)and that you had faith in Bush’s plan to institute “democracy” in the Middle East.

    Of course, at the time scores of critics offering “serious assessments” understood that Bush’s war paradigm was a bit suspect: any terrorists that Iraq supported did not pose a threat requiring a military response that could very likely destabilize the region.

    Second, the whole “Bush-committment-to-Democracy-thing” was so patently disingenuous, I am not sure why anyone actually fell for it. At the time, Bush’s critics argued that if the US really wanted to show a commitment to democracy in the region, they could start by supporting it in places where we have more influence: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine.

    Kerry and Gore, before him-for all of their shortcomings as orators and all of the stupid decisions they made with their campaigns-had very long records of thought and self-reflection.

    Bush, somehow, brilliantly made these traits into liabilites on the campaign trail and boldy embraced his crassness. Hopefully the electorate has learned its lesson.

    Comment by Ratoe — Wednesday, April 11, 2007 @ 8:28 pm

  3. Winston Churchill said something like “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

    Dr. Taylor has probably made what I think is the best observation I’ve seen so far of this case.

    There is a strong temptation when we see a clear abuse like this to throw the baby out with the bathwater - if three guys could be wrongly accused and dragged through the mud, treated this badly, the system must be broken.

    Maybe, maybe not; I applaud Dr. Taylor for his measured and reasonable call for a realistic assessment of threats facing our society, and the call for reasoned reforms based on these assessments.

    We must be extremely honest when we make that sort of assessment, and that is hard. No system will ever be perfect; if we prosecute the guilty, we will sometimes prosecute the innocent. The important thing is that the system is transparent enough, and includes enough checks and balances, to right the wrongs that it does in attempting to do right, and curtails the ambitions of those who pursue personal gain at the public’s expense.

    Real danger comes when we can’t argue about these things any more, and hack out compromises that meet our security needs AND protect our liberties.

    Comment by CPT D — Wednesday, April 11, 2007 @ 8:43 pm

  4. I am not sure that Kerry represented what I am talking about here.

    And yes, I was no fan of Kerry’s. I still am not, but that’s a different discussion.

    I have, obviously, rethought some of positions and clearly one of the downsides of blogging is leaving a public record-but I don’t subtitle this place “A Rough Draft of My Thoughts” for nothing.

    I do think that we had too much of a “law enforcement paradigm” in effect during the Clinton years vis-av-vis terrorism and clearly we have swung too far in the “war paradigm” direction. I will freely admit that I over-dichotomized the issue in the past.

    I actually think that Bush’s commitment to democracy was real, but that his understanding of that notion was hopelessly simplistic, naive and flawed. One of the ironies of his foreign policy is the mixture of power and idealism (I say that not to justify or defend, per se, but I simply think it is empirically true).

    More later, no doubt.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Wednesday, April 11, 2007 @ 9:16 pm

  5. “I actually think that Bush’s commitment to democracy was real”
    Do you have any evidence (at all) to back up this belief?

    “mixture of power and idealism”
    Are you sure that idealism is the right word to use regarding Bush’s actions? I mean, idealism suggests principles and noble purpose. IMO, just through the word you chose you are defending Bush in a way that he does not deserve.

    Regards.

    Comment by james — Wednesday, April 11, 2007 @ 9:57 pm

  6. […] I encourage you to read his entire post. Share: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

    Pingback by A true moderate voice | Random Fate - another roll of the dice — Thursday, April 12, 2007 @ 2:30 am

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