Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shame ...

... on us. The case of Canadian Maher Arar and the case of German Khalid El-Masri -- two completely innocent men, abducted and tortured in secret prisons at the behest of the US government for months on end -- are, along with all the other people we don't even know about, a great blemish on our national reputation. Glenn Greenwald sums up my feelings when he writes:
So on top of operating secret torture gulags in Eastern Europe, we also kidnap people, charge them with no crime, give them no opportunity to defend themselves, deny them contact with their consulate in violation of international treaties (as the Canadian report complained about), send them off to be tortured for months, and then when it turns out that they are completely innocent, we block them from obtaining compensation in our courts because our Government claims that national security would be jeopardized if they were held accountable for their behavior.

How can you be an American citizen and not be completely outraged, embarrassed, and disgusted by this conduct? What the Bush administration is doing on so many levels is a grotesque betrayal of every national value and principle we have always claimed to embrace and for which we have fought, and which we claim we are defending as part of our current "war".

You see, growing up, I learned that in America you are innocent until proven guilty. Later on, when I learned statistics, my professors always relied on this fundamental aspect of the American justice system (and identity) to clarify hypothesis testing. The null hypothesis in the American justice system is that you are innocent. And just like prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not, in fact, innocent, statisticians, in order to reject the null hypothesis, must be at least 95% certain that it is not true. We are told both as children in civics class and as students in statistics class, that we set such a high standard because type I error (convicting and innocent or rejecting a true null hypothesis) is substantially worse than type II error (letting someone guilty go free or failing to reject a false null hypothesis).

Unlike the fraidy-cats running our government (and their apologists), I do not think 9/11 changed this. When they say 9/11 changed everything, much of what they are saying is that it is now better to incarcerate and torture someone innocent (or simply invade the innocents' privacy via wiretapping and data mining), than to let someone guilty go free. Type II error is worse than Type I error.

This is a fundamental rejection of the American ethos as I have always understood it. And there do not appear to be any benefits to justify this enormous cost. Even if you assume that all these sick policies actually reduce the threat of terrorism, and I certainly don't accept that assumption, you've only replaced one threat -- being killed or maimed by a terrorist -- with another -- being incarcerated and tortured with limited ability to prove your innocence. It is certainly not obvious to me which of these things is worse in expectation. So not even taking into account the fact that these policies increase the threat of terrorism by inflaming hatred and that embracing these policies requires the rejection of several core elements of American identity, it is not clear that such policies are worthwhile. How then, is it even worth debating this stuff after you add the other costs (increased terrorist threats and loss of national pride/identity)?

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