A Bit More on Liberalism and Detention, or: What If Private Manning Confesses?

Let’s make up a potential headline: “Private Manning Confesses, Implicates Julian Assange.”  This hasn’t happened, but we can imagine that headline happening.  Yesterday I wrote a bit about liberals and the security state, and emphasized P.J. Crowley’s points that harsh interrogation and severe detention policies don’t produce good information, do not make us any safer and are counterproductive. That can come across as some pretty mercenary consequentialist stuff – if torture produced excellent information, should we be on board? – so I want to plant it in some deeper soil.

Let’s say that tomorrow Manning confesses to being the source for classified Wikileaks documents, and not only that he says that Assange gave him a bag full of $20 bills for those documents. Better, he says Assange encouraged him of whatever is the legal minimum for a conspiracy charge and also would leave the least paper trail. Should we trust it? Or should we assume that the extensive solitary confinement and forced nude inspections were instrumental in getting this confession?

One of the sharp moves of modern progressive and liberal thought is to move moral weight away from premises to procedures, processes and rules. Rules where the enforcement of procedural integrity, rather than any specific outcome, are key for its justification.  Where outcomes are justified not because they correspond to a immutable principles but instead because they adhered to the correct procedures.  The emphasis is usually that this levels playing fields, provides access to individuals, holds people accountable, etc. What’s equally important is that it provides legitimacy for the system itself.

Take the rule that Miranda Rights (“You have the right to remain silent…”) have to be read to people in custody. On the first approximation that protects people being interrogated, informing them of their rights and also clearly demarcating a space in which they are interacting with a police authority. But in a more crucial manner it protects police officers.  It provides ground rules for them to follow, and establishes that if they follow them then subsequent actions are justified. A confession, even a shaky one, can be justified by saying “the suspect was aware of his or her rights; we read the Miranda.”  It protects the legitimacy of the system.

This is why so many liberals are quick to point out that a key problem of the Bush administration, a problem continued into the Obama administration, is the lack of congressional accountability over key programs.  This is part of but not the complete discussion that the surveillance state is vast, secret and dangerous., blurs into the corporate sector with high-tech “fusion centers”, and actually produces too much information to be of any use in preventative action. (Frank Pasquele informs me that the concept of Cryptopicon is starting to replace the metaphor of a Panopticon in internet privacy discussion circles, as information collection is too wide, ubiquitous and fragmented to be symbolized by the logic of a solitary figure watching for instrumental ends. Less Orwell, more Kafka.)

There are people who are considering the argument that Manning might deserve special protection from the law under the account of the moral weight of what he disclosed. That’s not the argument here. It’s why Crowley can think that Manning is in the “right place” (under custody) but that his treatment in that place is cruel and counterproductive.   It’s counterproductive because it doesn’t achieve the ends it needs to but also calls into question any type of legitimate conclusion.  When there’s a court trial, we are all less likely to think it reflect the actual mechanisms of justice, even for a military trial.  And if Manning actually wants to confess, if he suddenly feels wrong about his actions and wants to say that to the public and the government, he’s even robbed of that too, since nobody will believe its his actual thoughts.  The legitimacy of our institutions have enough problems without this.

Conservative Thought

This isn’t the conservative response. I think there’s a sense that conservatives are like liberals here but want a slightly more tilted playing field, one more in favor of prosecutors and against suspects. There’s that element to it, but for conservatives the point of coercive power isn’t to establish fair procedures to hold it in check but instead to maintain order.

If you’ve never read it, the actual James Q Wilson 1982 Atlantic Monthly article popularizing “Broken Windows” is important here.  It’s arguably one of the most important wonky magazine articles written, giving an intellectually-driven wonk gloss to the beginning of an aggressive incarceration state.

For a neoconservative, I assumed Wilson blamed the Warren Court, Great Society liberalism and the New Left because thought criminals get too many rights, didn’t praise nuclear families enough, didn’t appreciate Great Books enough, weren’t interested in policing woman’s sexual autonomy enough, etc. etc. etc.   But that’s not the critique at all:

A stable neighborhood of families who care for their homes, mind each other’s children, and confidently frown on unwanted intruders can change, in a few years or even a few months, to an inhospitable and frightening jungle. A piece of property is abandoned, weeds grow up, a window is smashed…

The process we call urban decay has occurred for centuries in every city. But what is happening today is different in at least two important respects….

Second, the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer.

This pattern of policing was not an aberration or the result of occasional excess. From the earliest days of the nation, the police function was seen primarily as that of a night watchman: to maintain order against the chief threats to order—fire, wild animals, and disreputable behavior. Solving crimes was viewed not as a police responsibility but as a private one. In the March, 1969, Atlantic, one of us (Wilson) wrote a brief account of how the police role had slowly changed from maintaining order to fighting crimes. The change began with the creation of private detectives (often ex-criminals), who worked on a contingency-fee basis for individuals who had suffered losses. In time, the detectives were absorbed in municipal agencies and paid a regular salary simultaneously, the responsibility for prosecuting thieves was shifted from the aggrieved private citizen to the professional prosecutor. This process was not complete in most places until the twentieth century.

For the neoconservative intellectual movement, the problem is that the role of police went from one that maintained order to one that enforced and implemented rules based on the acknowledgement of individual rights. The problem isn’t that the rules are tilted one way or the other; the problem is that enforcing rules are front and center in the rules of what state power does.

One last block quote. Adam Serwer:

The underlying dynamic here is that the Obama administration has already asked the left to acquiesce to an uncomfortable level of policy continuity with the Bush administration on national security. Now, for many on the left, the administration seems to be asking that they accept that the administration’s dissenters are not to publicly speak their conscience, and that the abuse of those accused of terrible crimes is no vice. This is a request in some ways greater and more terrifying than any Obama has made before, because it is a demand that the left accept more that just the Bush administration’s policies but their internal moral logic as well.

My worry is that, just as the GOP began to embrace the moral legitimacy of torture in order to defend Bush, the left may embrace similar logic in its defense of Manning’s treatment — or even simply to defend Obama. It has already found itself struggling to defend Obama’s failure to fulfill his promises on national-security issues as a candidate. If this happens, I fear that this country’s voyage to Dick Cheney’s Dark Side will be irreversible.

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5 Responses to A Bit More on Liberalism and Detention, or: What If Private Manning Confesses?

  1. chris says:

    confidently frown on unwanted intruders

    Young toughs were roughed up

    “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk

    Boy, I could swear I’ve read this passage at least once before without noticing phrases like these, but once you do notice them, they really jump out at you. Everyone knows, without having to be told, who are the “decent folk” who make up “the community” deserving of protection and who are the “unwanted intruders” and “young toughs” that need to be kept out lest that community be destroyed.

    If this happens, I fear that this country’s voyage to Dick Cheney’s Dark Side will be irreversible.

    I think he’s mangling the quote here, but I don’t have time at the moment to look it up. Seems like he should have, though.

  2. Philip says:

    You can try to make the broken windows outlook and Wilson’s emphasis on orderliness seem authoritarian and nasty, or you could think of it almost of a piece with Jane Jacobs, who focuses on neighborhood orderliness in a different but related way. You seem so determined to discredit the “conservative” take on crime that you are willing to completely write off the benefits of ex ante crime prevention through the creation of a sense that criminals will not be included in the community. It is amazing that you don’t find anything even worth substantively rebutting in the idea that securing order in the community ought to be the primary goal of the police–rather, you just sneer about how that must show that conservatives don’t really care about “enforcing rules.” Seems like some means-end confusion to me.

    And this is coming from someone who agrees with you that there is plenty to lament, and reform, in America’s current practice of incarceration.

    • Mike says:

      I actually took out some stuff since this was going too long. The issue of whose sense of orderliness is actually given priority is central to that discussion. In Broken Windows it is decent folks. In his 1975 book, Thinking About Crime, it’s the sense of order of the police, implicitly regardless of the community:


      I’m still figuring out the right way to read the development of this thought, because it is a point of tension that comes with this – whose sense of order? But just because it alludes to Jacobs doesn’t mean that the practical implementation is more Seeing Like a Police Officer.

      I’m not sure if I’m necessarily trying to overtly play it as nasty – if you take something like Dirty Harry’s (1971) “I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!” you’ll see that this issue of rule-following and rights respecting is far more contingent that the normal conversation leads on.

  3. Chris Dornan says:

    Thanks Mike for the terriffic article that gets to the core of the issue.

    It would be extremely bad indeed if liberals followed conservatives in getting behind the torture state, but i think it is unlikely. Which is why I am astonished that Obama doesn’t realise how lethal this issue is. Crowley was the canary in the mine which has just had its neck wrung.

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