Why Secrets Are Scary

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Virginia Postrel makes some bracing comments about Jacob Sullum's latest column on secret detentions. An excerpt:

In my mind, the single most important guide to security policy is that the government must never have the right to hold individuals within the United States, particularly (but not exclusively) citizens, secretly or incommunicado. That power inevitably turns first into the power to torture, and eventually into the power to detain and torture people whose danger to the general population is far less than their danger to the decision-making officials.

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  1. As Frank Zappa might sing, It can’t happen here!

  2. Who could imagine that they’d freak out in Kansas?

  3. There are at least two questions here. In the abstract, I’d have to disagree with Virginia at least where non-citizens are concerned, and I’m not sure how she concludes that the power to torture is inevitable either.

    However, suppose we don’t argue about this in the abstract. Have we already arrived at the point Virginia sees as the end of the process — the detention of people whose release would be more embarrassing to public officials than dangerous to the country? I don’t know. I submit this is the only truthful answer someone in my position can give to this question. But do I have confidence that this Justice Department would move promptly to end the detention of people who posed no threat because the revelation that they had been detained in the first place would be embarrassing or (and this may be more likely) whose paperwork DoJ were for some reason unable to get in order?

    My confidence that the answer to this question is “yes” is not high.

  4. Maybe it’s time to look into activating Trackback here on Hit and Run, and maybe teaching Ms. Postrel how and why to do the same. I know it smacks of Communism for a Professional Libertarian Writer to post comments gratis on someone else’s blog (even if that someone else is a libertarian magazine she once ran), but maybe then you fellows wouldn’t be adding an entry to your blog every time she deigns to comment on your blog from the airless, commentless, feedback-mechanismless confines of hers. At least if you turned on Movable Type’s lovely Trackback feature, the link to her entry could magically appear here and she wouldn’t have to give away any intellectual property in the process.

    I’m sure she’s a dear friend and brings great beer and lots of thick steaks to the annual Articles of Confederation Day barbecue (and I agree with her post), but it’s probably all right if you ask her to fetch her own coffee once in a while now.

  5. People are honest and virtuous when other people are looking – when people that aren’t under their thumb, or in the same boat as them, aren’t paying attention…humans have a widely documented and proven tendency to do some exceedingly distasteful things that everyone that knows them tend to be absolutely convinced they could never do, what for all the goodness they’ve seen in them.

    If it’s ok for the government to do it, then it is ok for it’s own people to watch and know about it in pretty darn short order. Maybe not IMMEDIATELY – but damn short order, as in “before those responsible and in charge die of old age or retire”. There are so many instances of governments, including this one, claiming things are classified and top-notch national security that turned out more to be out of covering up career destroying behavior and avoiding embarrassment than anything else, that I’m a bit shocked that anyone thinks governments will not _invariably_ do horrible things when they think it will be kept a secret and no one will know but people who agree with what they did.

    They needn’t be evil – just human. But perhaps some have a far too moralized picture of just how humans behave, and why they behave the way they do.

  6. Besides the salient point: “That power(secret detention) inevitably turns first into the power to torture, and eventually into the power to detain and torture people whose danger to the general population is far less than their danger to the decision-making officials.”

    Just the existence of secret detention will have a chilling effect on dissent which in turn may embolden the government toward more violations.

  7. It’s only a matter of time before peaceful protestors, democratic voters and people who post in this comments section are jailed and tortured.

    Whew. These tin hats making anybody else kinda warm?

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