John Rawls and American Society in the 21st Century

Note: This paper has the added advantage of not being about abortion.

John Rawls, 20th Century American philosopher, died November 26th, 2002. Rawls was a man who believed in the American system, the government, the bicameral legislature, the judicial system, and most of all capitalism. An attack on American soil, such as the September 11th attacks, was also an attack on all the ideals that he, and most of us as Americans, hold dear.
After reading his biography, I pictured Rawls to be sitting on his porch listening to bluegrass or perhaps even smooth jazz, smoking a pipe. Apple pie cooling on the window sill. His son Opie is playing America’s favorite pastime, baseball, and Aunt Bea is in the house packing fireworks for the fourth of July. There is a Rockwell painting above the mantel, which itself is adorned with football trophies and war medals. Just below the mantel are hung stockings from Christmas, because who in America has time to take down Christmas decorations when a Tom Hanks movie is on television ever other week? It’s the American dream. Mr. Television, Milton Berle, Road To movies, Captain America comics and other such clichés.
I bet France hasn’t got as many clichés!

Despite Rawls’ belief in democracy, in the American government, he may not agree with the steps taken by President Bush after September 11th. Part of the American experience is self-sufficiency, individuality. At least in the realistic sense that we are as self-sufficient as can be expected in a group mentality. We rely on others for our electricity, groceries, even water. But contributing members of society can provide for themselves and their families without fear of government intervention or an oppressive New World Order.
Individual accomplishments set people above and beyond in Rawls’ ideal society. The poor are poor through a set of unfortunate circumstances, sure, but the rich are rich because they worked an honest, hard life to get there. The harder you work, the farther you’ll go. In that sense, Rawls is clearly conservative. He believes in helping the poor, in fact he thinks it’s morally necessary, but it shouldn’t be federally mandated.
(And while we’re discussing deontological ethics, would federally mandated welfare really be more morally responsible?)
The Institute for American Values has discussed the American ideology in 1998’s report, A Call to Civil Society.
First and foremost is the conviction that all persons possess transcendent human dignity, and that consequently each person must always be treated as an end, never as a means.
Also, because our individual and collective access to truth is imperfect, most disagreements about values call for civility, openness to other views, and reasonable argument in pursuit of truth. Hey, that’s why I’m writing the paper, right?
Finally is the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion – the twin freedoms which many people, from George Washington to today’s finest historians, believe to be the foundation and precondition of all individual freedoms.

“What is most striking about these values is that everyone can participate. Because they apply to all persons without distinction, they cannot be used to exclude anyone from recognition and respect based on the particularities of race, language, memory, or religion.”
So in the light of these beliefs, it would seem logical that acts taken by the Department of Homeland Security recently would seem atrocious to Rawls. Databases on citizens detailing credit history, criminal history, and work history, not just available to law enforcement or creditors but any average citizen. The detaining of non-citizens and residents due to the possibility of terrorism based solely on race or religion.
Even though Rawls believes that a strong government should govern the people (what a crazy thought), he also believes in checks in balances, that most of the work should be done not by the lawmakers but by you and I. Attending town meetings, voting, and writing our congressmen or women. The happy medium between government regulation and self-rule. But you don’t need a lesson in civics.

Given the threat of terrorism, the nation must now determine the proper balance between freedom and security, liberty and lockdown.
During a news briefing in December at the White House, Steve Cooper, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security, said privacy issues would be one of the five guiding principles used to develop the administration’s cybersecurity protection strategy.
The VISIT program (which will take digital fingerprints and photographs of foreign nationals entering and exiting the country) proposed by the DHS, came coupled with a Privacy Impact Assessment. It explains the flow of data from department to department.
“Getting the balance right between security and privacy will be a pendulum,” Cooper said. But at least they’re trying, right?
Good invasions of privacy…
Bad invasions of privacy…
In May, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft released the FBI from the requirement that surveillance and collection of personal data be based on probable cause. Acts taken by Homeland Security in their search for terrorists and domestic espionage may trample on the rights of those home and abroad, some believe. However, large technological strides have been taken, and the personal information collected, so far, has brought many a notorious villain to justice.
Of course, many people wonder where this trend will eventually lead? Secret warrants, secret courts, black helicopters and Martians in tubes beneath Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Tracking collars on our necks and UPC tattoos on our hands. The mark of the beast.
Ever see that TV show The Prisoner?
The proposal to form a National Counter Terrorism Center, one more organization that will collect and database the information on American citizens and residents, seems to come straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.
James S. Gilmore, one of the main opponents of the government control, has formed the Gilmore Commission (what a modest fellow), for the purposes of countering and reporting to the Congress and the president on matters of invasions of privacy. Gilmore has admitted that incidents in the past, such as the Red Scare, warranted federal action. The difference today, he says, is that “we have the technology to watch everybody all the time, intercept all communications all the time.”
And, as with most large websites, the Homeland Security website has included a Privacy Policy. It mentions the use of internet cookies, IP ranges, if someone links to the site, et cetera. The usual fare. In the context of such a large government organization, however, I cannot help but smile.
Conspiracy, much?

Let’s look at the opposite sides of the argument. Are small compromises in freedoms regrettable but necessary? And what about the larger rights that we as human beings, and not just Americans would be forfeiting if we ignored the problem of terrorism altogether? Is the right to keep your internet history clear from the public eye really more important that the right to sleep unabashed on an airplane? The right to go to school, work, or simply walk the streets without fear of a plane dropping on your head, or a suicide bomber jumping from the crowd and screaming “Jihad!”
To many Americans, the failure to uphold rights may seem an abstract concern in the face of the very concrete exploding threat posed by terrorist attacks.
And what rights are we really giving up? We can still say what we want, own as many guns as we want, worship any way we want if at all, and get the education we desire. Dear God what will we do if we can’t get our double mocha lattes with an injection of overpriced arrogance or our Sears catalog?
I’ll come back to that.
Many people cry foul at the alleged invasions of privacy that government agencies are taking. Conspiracy theories range from the subtle but realistic Big Brother threat involving monitoring what songs you download to the ultimate conspiracy theory; that September 11th itself was a government coup. Normal, sane people scoff at such allegations. There is nothing to be gained! And what threat do fourteen-year-olds pose if they download Garth Brooks songs off of Kazaa? Why would the FBI even care? They (mostly) don’t.

Yes, it’s true and it’s sad how many people of Middle-Eastern descent have been wrongfully prosecuted in this country after September 11th. But keep in mind that all of the high-jackers on all of the planes that day were of Middle-Eastern descent. Racial profiling? Maybe. But if a man with a six-inch boil on his forehead mugs me in a parking lot, and the police lineup contains a man with a six-inch boil on his forehead, you better believe I’m picking out the guy with the six-inch boil.
Ok. Stupid comparison. But ignoring the semi-logical answer of “we’re suspicious of Middle-Easterners because most terrorists are Middle-Eastern”, answer me some other questions… Why doesn’t every American duck and cover when they see a teenager in a grocery store wearing a black trench coat? Would these people accept mail from a grizzled white man from Michigan who lives in a cabin? Are Japanese allowed to fly crop-dusters over Hawaiian soil?
Let’s face it. Some terrorists are Middle-Eastern, and some Middle-Easterners are terrorists, but one obviously doesn’t necessitate the other.
People in America have problems with Venn diagrams.

What exactly is the problem? Recently, the Human Rights Watch organization wrote a report detailing infractions against people in this, our very own country.  Most of those directly affected have been non-U.S. citizens, but that doesn’t negate their basic human rights, or those afforded to them even as aliens in this country.
Separate chapters detail the unjustified secrecy of the government’s practices, including: “the secret incarceration of post-September 11 detainees and immigration proceedings closed to the public; custodial interrogations without access to counsel; arbitrarily prolonged confinement, including detention without charge; and the deplorable conditions-including solitary confinement-as well as the physical abuse to which some detainees have been subjected.
Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Justice-through constituent agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)-began a process of questioning thousands of people who might have information about or connections to terrorist activity. The decision of whom to question often appeared to be haphazard, at times prompted by law enforcement agents’ random encounters with foreign male Muslims or neighbors’ suspicions. The questioning led to the arrest and incarceration of as many as 1,200 non-citizens, although the exact number remains uncertain. Of those arrested, 752 were charged with immigration violations.
Using immigration law violations as a basis for detention permitted the Department of Justice to avoid the greater safeguards in the criminal law-for example, the requirement of probable cause for arrest, the right to be brought before a judge within forty-eight hours of arrest, and the right to court-appointed counsel. While the alleged visa violations provided a lawful basis for seeking to deport these non-citizens, the Justice Department’s actions constituted an end run around constitutional and international legal requirements governing criminal investigations.
While an immigration law violation may justify deportation, it does not in itself justify detention after arrest. The INS has the legal authority to keep a non-citizen confined pending conclusion of his or her deportation proceedings only if there is evidence of the individual’s dangerousness or risk of flight. Whereas most persons accused of overstaying their visas, working on a tourist visa, or other common immigration law violations are routinely released from jail while their cases proceed, the Department of Justice has sought to keep “special interest” detainees confined in the absence of evidence that they were dangerous or a flight risk. Their release from jail has been contingent on government “clearance,” that is a decision that they were not linked to nor had knowledge about terrorist activities.
An example from the same report:
Tiffanay Hughes, a U.S. citizen, and her husband, Ali Al-Maqtari, a Yemeni citizen, were searched and detained at an army base in Kentucky where she was a recruit on September 15, 2001, for no stated reason. She said that two days earlier, when she went to pick up her orders in Massachusetts, an officer told her repeatedly that she could not wear a hejab, a headdress used by many Muslim women. She protested and said it was a religious symbol. She said that the officer replied, “Don’t let people know that you’re Muslim. It’s dangerous.” Hughes believed that her identification card photo, in which she was wearing the hejab and which was allegedly posted at the army base guardhouse when she arrived there, and her speaking a foreign language (French) with her husband may have raised suspicions. Hughes was followed by three officers everywhere she went for almost two weeks while at the army base. The army encouraged her to take an honorable discharge, and she did so on September 28. Her husband was detained for fifty-two days, mostly in solitary confinement. He was charged with an immigration violation for ten days of “unlawful presence” in the United States while he changed from a visitor’s visa to a visa sponsored by his wife. He had been released on bond.”
Its not just the government’s mentality that provides racial discrimination since September 11th. Additionally, there have been reports of violence against people of Middle-Eastern descent. Hate crimes such as the murder of Ali Almansoop, an American-Yemeni native and hardworking father of four, spark a sense of dismay at the extremes that some people will take their hatred concerning the attacks. Septemer 10th was a normal day. The next day, we were all shocked and certainly outraged, but the majority of us didn’t pick up a gun and murder discriminately.
Despite this, there are more Middle-Eastern victims of terrorism than there are American victims. Not to minimize American deaths, but more innocent Middle-Easterners have been blown up than voluntary suicide bombers. But that’s a different rant, we were talking about America, I believe.
“Abdo Ali Ahmed, 51, a Yemeni shopkeeper, was killed in Reedley, California, on Sept. 29 after receiving a death threat and a hate note deriding his ethnicity. Ahmed was a father of eight who had lived in California for 35 years.”
I bring this up, not because it is the fault of the Justice Department or the president. Quite the contrary, I will connect this evidence later to show how the government may be even more necessary due to this hateful mentality.
However, hopefully these murderers don’t represent or speak for all of us. Though we can discount these lone nuts as lone nuts and repress the hatred imparted upon us by former generations, we cannot overlook the violence, and we certainly cannot discount the outrages committed by our very own government.
Overstepping the boundaries? Without a doubt.
In some cases, the Department of Justice detained people of interest to the Once de Septembre investigation by obtaining arrest warrants for them as material witnesses, which is a perfectly legal responsibility on the parts of law enforcement agencies. Some individuals, however, may have been detained because their names resembled those of the alleged hijackers. “The only thing a lot of these people are guilty of is having the Arabic version of Bob Jones for a name,” said Bob Doguim, an FBI spokesman in Houston. Muhammed is the most popular name on the planet, by the by.
Whatever the reasoning, the problem is real and… unless I’m mistaken in the completion of this overused phrase… the problem is now.

But I am not writing all this to convince you that the actions of the Department of Homeland Security are unethical. I’m sure that we’re all aware of that by now. I’m not writing to begrudge the government or ramble about Civil Rights infractions. In all honesty, I don’t even care that terribly much. I mean, let me be honest about this because it’s the ethical thing to do. It may be the only ethical thing I do because I love to laugh at the misfortunes of others. I think George Burns said it best with “Tragedy is when I stub my toe, Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” Also known as Schadenfreude. So I revel in the stories of people like the following:
On November 1, 2001, two FBI agents went to the workplace of a Palestinian civil engineer in New York City. They informed him that they had received an anonymous tip: that he had a gun, which was not true. The engineer suspects that a contractor with a grudge against him sent the tip to the FBI. Five days later, INS agents came to his workplace and arrested him for overstaying his visa. The man’s visa had indeed expired but he had applied for an adjustment of status; he was therefore legally in the country. He received a visa extension from the INS office in Vermont while he was detained. He was incarcerated for twenty-two days before being released on bond.
I laugh at that because it is not my tragedy, its my comedy. Perhaps that is part of the problem with America in the 21st century, but I digress.

To re-iterate. This paper is about Rawls’ possible reactions and thoughts on both Once de Septembre and our nation’s reactions. That in mind, what would he have to say specifically concerning the detainees in the wake of… the tragedy.
If terrorism is such a threat to our opulent way of life, which we all hold dear, then maybe the ends do justify the means.
But perhaps the dismissal of the rights of the few end up hurting the whole. Part of our mindset that makes us American is the recognition of the importance of the rights that are the foundation of American democracy. Indeed, rather than weakening national security, protection of civil liberties is a hallmark of strong, democratic policies.
Rawls would certainly agree. In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls sketches a complex and well-defined notion of how a liberal democratic state could make a positive impact in terms of being redistributive–that is, how such a state could insure that its members were provided with basic rights and more or less equal opportunities. Justice means that the same fundamental liberties are given to all citizens and it means ideological neutrality of the state. In later works, including Political Liberalism, Rawls deals with the thorny issue of cultural pluralism, and how a liberal state could hope to incorporate the life-plans of many different cultures under one roof.
Ah, the blissful veil of ignorance. Sweet bliss!
I mean, how is a Yemeni shopkeeper supposed to work hard and honest and get rich if he’s dead or deported? That being the case, when we set a precedent in history (which was really set with the detainment of Japanese during World War II, but who‘s counting?), it not only undermines the rights of a thousand non-citizens now, but possibly millions of thousands of American babies born in… the future!! Will these futurebabies be put into camps for the menial labors that benefit the rich and the few? Will rights such as freedom of speech and due process be suspended under fears that radicals will blow up not only themselves but others around them?
I don’t know what to believe anymore!! (Note: When you flip flop this quickly it’s not called flip-flopping, its called inner turmoil.)
True. There is no great conspiracy. The Illuminati and the Zionists didn’t work out a plan to make the Muslim community look bad by crashing airplanes into the symbols of economic trade in America. Bush isn’t reviewing his Napoleonic plans for world dominion while stroking a white furry cat. John Ashcroft doesn’t have ACME blueprints on how to stop the artists and liberals and attach ACME tracking collars on all the writers and poets.
And let me tell you something that may blow your mind. And this is coming from a self-described libertarian. I do not believe that the infringements on privacy or constitutional rights were intentional or malicious. I believe that the Department of Homeland Security has taken precautions to do what they think is necessary to ensure our safety. They have been walking on eggshells to tread a fine line between Martial Law and a world driven by terrorist fear.

Let’s take a look at some of their accomplishments taken straight from their very own Homeland Security website:
At the top of the list are improved border functions, which have resulted in better service, shorter delays and tighter security. Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy said the border inspection process was unified to speed the free flow of goods and people, and to keep terrorists and criminals out of the United States. In addition, the department also took measures to enhance aviation security. Loy has said that in less than a year 50,000 newly trained screeners, air marshals, along with state of the art technology helped make airline travel safer and more secure.
The department also took a closer look at the Internet-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System to maintain current information on non- immigrant students and exchange visitors coming and going to and from the United States.
He said the system has ensured that foreign students are not delayed upon entry and those “posing as students” or seeking entry to fraudulent schools are stopped in their tracks. Last fall 300,000 students were successfully cleared for study through the program, while some 200 others were sent home, he said.
Another department initiative has been expansion of its Container Security Initiative in an effort to ensure the 20,000 containers entering U.S. ports every day are safe. Loy said the department has increased inspections at ports around the world.
He said the department will install U.S. VISIT program equipment at the nation’s 50 busiest land ports as well as deploy aerial surveillance and expand CSI to more seaports around the world. The US-VISIT system is a DHS program that uses biometric identifiers such as fingerprints from visitors to assist border control officers in making admission decisions. The system also helps the department verify the identity of incoming visitors and confirm compliance with visa and immigration policies.
The department will phase in a system over the next three months that will provide secure real-time cyber connectivity among all 50 states and territories. In addition, a network of secure video conferencing capability between governors’ offices will be in place by July, he said.
The department also plans to build on existing programs to share information, because “pieces of information that were never important before have all of a sudden become important,” he explained.
Also the department is working on a solution for better information sharing and communication, as well as interoperability in equipment and training, among first responders and state and local levels.
Another priority lies in further protecting U.S. borders. Loy noted that every year 500 million people, 130 million vehicles, 2.5 million rail cars and more than 11 million containers are processed at borders across the country. “The challenge of developing a fully integrated border and port security system in the context of a global economy amid a global war is huge,” he said. “And yet the consequences of not achieving this goal is even greater.”

And let’s not forget that we went all the way to Iraq to shove flashlights down Saddam Hussein’s open craw. Now that’s what I call… Texas Justice!
It’s obvious to most, (excepting those that are set in their government hatin’ ways), that Walker Texas President and his council of Good Old Boys are actually working for the American populace, for better or worse.

Let’s return to Rawls for a moment. For though he may be dead… uh… well hell, the paper’s about him, anyway. Rawls describes his ‘Great Society’ as needing three specific things in order to operate successfully towards his Thomas Moore-like Utopia. He sees a need for government regulation and lawmaking. Although Rawls may not be happy to the extent that these regulations have been taken, it’s certainly better than the alternative. A lackadaisical government who sees a righteous injustice and replies with an apathetic “feh.” By comparison, we can assume that Rawls would be content, if not actually happy, with American society in the 21st century.
The other two requirement for the ‘Great Society’ however, don’t measure up by any means or stretch of the imagination. The second need, he says, is a reasonable acceptance of the norms and values of others. Along with the hate crimes mentioned earlier and the obvious racial tensions in many parts of the United States to this day, there are religious close-mindedness, sexual harassment, shortsightedness when it comes to lifestyle choices, and a general veneer of hatred still perpetuated to this day. Beyond that, many Americans cannot accept the beliefs of other world cultures. Eat dog? Barbaric! Not eat beef? Close-minded! Communist? Atrocious! The French? Well… maybe I agree with them on that.
The third and most important prerequisite for the ‘Great Society’ is perhaps the saddest of all since we aren’t achieving it. It ties in closely to the second, it seems to be the perfect balance to the first. It’s the responsibility of Americans to take a hand in their own system. Many members of the population fall far short of their expectations in Rawls’ theoretical utopian democratic society. The same people who sit at home and complain about the invasions of privacy or mistreatment of the elderly or school shootings… they may not even vote. Hell, they may not even stay on the phone long enough to answer all the questions on the Gallup Poll. The responsibility falls on our shoulders alone to take an active role. The value of public deliberation is not only important to increase personal reflection, but to ensure that each has a voice in the system.

If the people who don’t have a voice get deported, and if the people who do have a voice don’t bother to show up to any rallies, perhaps the Justice Department is justified in overstepping its boundaries. Maybe they’re not so much exceeding their authority as they are simply picking up the slack.
Would Rawls approve of the government’s actions? More importantly would he approve of the actions or inactions of the American society as a whole? Do we, through inaction, forfeit our rights? Throw up our hands and say, “let Josh Ashcroft take care of it, Hogan’s Heroes is on!”
I’d like to think that John Rawls hasn’t given up on the American Dream. That is, the American Dream to work hard and have the best society in the world, one that every other country would actually want to model itself after… voluntarily. Not the American Dream where a 40% voter turnout is high, 60% of Americans overweight is low, and the driving morality depends week to week on gas prices.

Or have the terrorists truly won?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A Call to Civil Society. New York: Institute for American Values, 1998.
October 2001.

Black, Jane. “Privacy Progress at Homeland Security.” BusinessWeek. January 8th, 2004.

Bohman, James, and William Rehg. Deliberative Democracy. MIT Press. Nov. 7, 1997.

Decker, Kevin S. “John Rawls.” http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/1643/rawls.html. 2001.

Hanania, Ray. “Arabs and Muslims killed after September 11th related violence” http://www.hanania.com/hatevictims.html

Hanania, Ray. “Response to September 11th Driven by Bias Not Reason” http://www.hanania.com. Sept. 9th, 2003.

Kymlicka, Will. Liberalism, Community & Culture. Oxford Press, NY. March, 1991.

Pogge, William. Realizing Rawls. Cornell University Press. December, 1989.

“Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Abuses of Post-September 11 Detainees” Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/us911/USA0802.htm

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 1971.

Rawls, John. “Kantian Constructivism Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy. September 1980.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. 1993.

Sample, Doug, Sgt. 1st Class. “Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Lists Accomplishments” American Forces Press Service. Washington. Feb. 25th, 2004.

Sandel, Michael. Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Belknap Press. April, 1998.

Verton, Dan. “Homeland security approach to privacy challenged.” Computerworld. http://www.computerworld.com/securitytopics/security/ privacy/story. March 7th, 2003.

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