Not Responding to Guantanamo — Is “Outside My Area” an Excuse?

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I would like to revisit Dave Hoffman’s concern that this blog may have let its readers down by failing to address the habeas/torture legislation passed last week. I have felt similar angst not as a blogger, but as a lawyer/law professor more generally. Do I (do we) have an obligation to be involved when critical legal rights are at stake? Like many who have been deeply troubled by the administration’s treatment of Guantanamo detainees and its actions undermining civil liberties during the years since September 11, I have excused my lack of involvement on grounds that the issues are not my area, or are outside the bounds of my expertise.

During this same period, two of my colleagues, Mark Denbeaux and Baher Azmy, have thrown themselves into the fray and are hosting a teach-in tomorrow at Seton Hall Law that will be webcast to colleges and universities around the country. Mark and Baher have both represented Guantanamo detainees — indeed, Baher’s client, Murat Kurnaz, was released August 24, 2006 after being held by the United States since October 2001. The teach-in program looks to be extraordinarily informative and I encourage people to find a way to connect to it.

Some of those who responded to Dave’s post suggested that our country is not at the point where the failure to respond can be likened to the Germans during the holocaust. But is that our standard? I accept that the general concept of a division of labor gives me leave to allow others to become expert on important legal topics. It is also true that multiple tragedies in this country and around the world are ongoing and one can’t take personal responsibility for them all. The difference of course is when our own government is responsible — and particularly when clear political moments arise as they did last week. I appreciate the efforts of many law professors to lobby Congress — and the many terrific discussions in the blogosphere. But I join Dave in thinking that those of us who think that our government has gone seriously awry (and I recognize that not all share this view) have some obligation.

What might our obligations entail? At the very least, we should all have weighed in to our representatives about last week’s legislation. Likely those of us who have a platform — like a blog — should acknowledge critically important political or legal events if only by linking to those whose blogs contain extensive discussions. Today, for example, Frank Pasquale posted a thoughtful discussion of both the teach-in tomorrow and John Yoo’s troubling interview on NPR. Linking to others has the effect both of alerting our readers to where they can find sound analyses and also adding to the chorus of dissenting voices. We should also aspire to deeper engagement. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to those, like Baher and Mark, who have devoted extraordinary time and energy to representing detainees and organizing a sustained response. I am confident that tomorrow’s teach in will contain a detailed discussion of ways to become involved. I will provide a full description in a post tomorrow.

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5 Responses

  1. J.K. Wesley says:

    What if you think that the Bush Administration is right? Do you have a moral obligation to speak out in favor of the administration?

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    J.K. Welsey,

    I would think those who believe ‘the Bush Administration is right’ would have a moral obligation to attend the teach-in by way of entertaining the possibility that they may be deeply and disastrously mistaken. In other words, they would have a moral obligation to patiently and thoughtfully consider the views of others in a manner this administration has contemptuously and arrogantly dismissed or ignored. We’ve heard ad nauseum the ideological political rationale proffered by the President. It’s clear that opposing views have lacked the fora and publics the President commands simply by the virtue of his office. Attend the teach-in if you support the President and then leave at the end of the day with a clear conscience if your sincere attempt to consider with an open mind the views of others you disagree with leaves you unmoved and not the least bit persuaded. (Or maybe don’t go away with a clear conscience until you’ve carefully read the relevant posts by Lederman, Levinson, Balkin, et al over at Balkinizatin).

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’m sorry: J.K. Wesley

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    whoops! (it’s a bit late, even on the west coast): Balkinization (at Blogroll on right)

  5. Diogenes says:

    They came for the Communists, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Communist;

    They came for the Socialists, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Socialist;

    They came for the labor leaders, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a labor leader;

    They came for the Jews, and I didn’t object – For I wasn’t a Jew;

    They came for the Arabs, and I didn’t object- For I wasn’t an Arab;

    Then they came for me – And there was no one left to object.