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When Is It Acceptable For The State To Violate Our Rights?

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Over the weekend, President Bush admitted that the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) has been surveiling telephone conversations and e-mails of some US citizens without obtaining warrants. The phone conversations have at least one international leg and are also connected with suspected terrorists and/or associates of Al Qaeda . Apparently this type of surveillance has been going on for some time now, as there was a "60 Minutes" story back in 2000 about a similar program. The usual group of civil libertarians and Democrats are now screaming bloody murder about these activities.

In an Objectivist society, under what conditions would it be appropriate for the government to violate our privacy and other rights? Would it only be acceptable in times of war, or are there other circumstances which would make such actions by the government permissible?

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In an Objectivist society, under what conditions would it be appropriate for the government to violate our privacy and other rights? Would it only be acceptable in times of war, or are there other circumstances which would make such actions by the government permissible?
The short answer is that it is never proper for the government to violate rights. The question is what those rights are: in particular, is there a "right to privacy" and what does it mean? If it is proper for the Bush administration to eavesdrop on phone conversations, then it is proper for the Bush administration to get a warrant to eavesdrop on phone conversations. It is not proper for the government to disregard the law.

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I agree that the key to this is the respect for the rule of law. Other threads have discussed the rule of law from the perspective of individuals acting in a private capacity. When it comes to individuals acting as government agents, the respect for the rule of law becomes much more important. So, for instance, if Congress has passed a law saying prisoners must not be treated in a degrading manner, the executive must follow the law -- regardless of how stupid it is.

NPR did a story a couple of days ago about how CIA employees take out private legal insurance. Part of the cover is for acts that they committed under orders, but on which the government may not back them up. This is sensible, but they should not ever be put in that position.

On the wire-taps, the government (Rice on the Sunday shows) claims that nature of the surveillance was such that the current procedure, which is set up based on suspect individuals was not applicable. If true, the law needs to be changed so that it works; the solution is not for the executive to make its own law.

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The short answer is that it is never proper for the government to violate rights.
It's never proper? It isn't too hard to think up scenarios where an individual's rights might need to be violated in order to avert a terrorist or other attack. It seems to me that in a time of war or national emergency, there may be occasions when it is simply impractical to observe everyone's rights completely. Of course I'm not saying that all rights go out the window during wartime, but don't practical considerations come into play at some point?

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My answer would be the only time it's proper for a government to violate an individual's rights is when said government has probable cause to believe a criminal has committed or is committing a crime, and they are exercising their monopoly on retaliatory force against that suspected criminal.

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It's never proper? It isn't too hard to think up scenarios where an individual's rights might need to be violated in order to avert a terrorist or other attack. It seems to me that in a time of war or national emergency, there may be occasions when it is simply impractical to observe everyone's rights completely. Of course I'm not saying that all rights go out the window during wartime, but don't practical considerations come into play at some point?

Any deaths resulting from force used to defeat a legitimate enemy, is the moral responsibility of that enemy, not of the defender. Rights *were* violated - by the attacker.

American soldiers fighting against terrorists, who die, are not having their rights violated by the U.S. government (as long as they joined the military voluntarily). Their rights are being violated by the terrorists. The soldiers have a right to live and to defend civilization - the terrorists have no right to exist. That isn't the kind of example you had in mind, but it's the same principle, made clear by the context.

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It is never acceptable for the government to violate individual rights. In an Objectivist society, the state would act solely as the protector of rights.

The notion that the president is suggesting, at least implicitly, is that it is proper for our government to violate the rights of individual citizens, i.e., spy on private telophone calls, e-mails, etc., in order to protect the rights of the nation. This idea is entirely incorrrect, since a nation is merely a large body of individuals living in the same geographical area, acting under the same laws.

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The answer is that it is never acceptable for a government to violate individual rights. Rights are either respected, or they are not. Here is Ayn Rand's view on the question:

When we say that we hold individual rights to be inalienable, we must mean just that. Inalienable means that which we may not take away, suspend, infringe, restrict or violate – not ever, not at any time, not for any purpose whatsoever.

You cannot say that ‘man has inalienable rights except in cold weather and on every second Tuesday,’ just as you cannot say that ‘man has inalienable rights except in an emergency,’ or ‘man’s rights cannot be violated except for a good purpose.’

Either man’s rights are inalienable, or they are not. You cannot say a thing such as ‘semi-inalienable’ and consider yourself either honest or sane. When you begin making conditions, reservations and exceptions, you admit that there is something or someone above man’s rights who may violate them at his discretion.

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Violating rights is never practical.
This hypothetical has become a bit of a cliche, but what about a situation where the government apprehends a suspected terrorist within the United States? Assume there is reliable information that he's involved in a plot to destroy a large American city and this will cause millions of deaths within a few short hours. Given this context, would you insist that the suspect's rights be assiduously observed despite what is likely to occur? Or, would you allow the man to be tortured to extract information that could avert a disaster?

The answer is that it is never acceptable for a government to violate individual rights. Rights are either respected, or they are not. Here is Ayn Rand's view on the question:
Thanks for the quote Felipe, it's helpful.

At the risk of being redundant, it is never proper for the government to violate an individual's rights.
Does the idea that our government should never violate an individual's rights extend to all people in all locations, just US citizens, only people within US borders, etc...? The reason I ask is not because I don't understand the meaning of the word never (my font is bigger :P ), but because it seems to me that this sort of extension of rights to everyone makes it nearly impossible for us to fight and win the war against Islamic fundamentalism.

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This hypothetical has become a bit of a cliche, but what about a situation where the government apprehends a suspected terrorist within the United States? Assume there is reliable information that he's involved in a plot to destroy a large American city and this will cause millions of deaths within a few short hours. Given this context, would you insist that the suspect's rights be assiduously observed despite what is likely to occur? Or, would you allow the man to be tortured to extract information that could avert a disaster?

It would indeed be lawful to use whatever means was necessary to avert the disaster. However, if the government officials were in error about the man's knowledge, they are also responsible for any extreme emergency measures they take to control the situation.

Notice that term? Emergency? In emergency situations ethics do not apply and it's up to the individual involved to decide what is necessary to end the emergency as quickly as possible. It almost comes down to their individual personality. This is one of the reasons that the character of government officials is nearly as important as their avowed principles.

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...Assume there is reliable information that he's involved in a plot to destroy a large American city and this will cause millions of deaths within a few short hours. Given this context, would you insist that the suspect's rights be assiduously observed despite what is likely to occur? Or, would you allow the man to be tortured to extract information that could avert a disaster?
Does the law explicitly or implicitly declare that in such an emergency situation the executive may not act? If so, the problem is with the law. My take on it would be: if I knew this, and I was an agent of the law, I would do what I have to do qua private citizen, and take the consequences.

I don't know if the NSA eavesdropping is legal or not. However, if it makes sense to do it, why is it not the law? The law can make provisions for emergencies and unusual circumstances. The law may also make provision for an executive to take certain action and get post-hoc approval. However, in every case the government must act according to the law: not just the letter, but the spirit or intent.

Take John McCain's law prohibiting degrading treatment. Suppose a court rules that tearing up a Koran is degrading and disallowed under the law. Also suppose an interrogator cannot get some information from a suspect because he isn't allowed to tear up books and the sort. Now, suppose that this results in a huge bomb going off... well, what of it? Can we say that it is legal for the interrogator to save the voters who died from the stupidity of the people they elected to power? If I were the interrogator, I would probably tear a few pages, and risk the consequences, knowing I am acting morally, if not legally. I would also curse the people who put me in a situation where I have to save their sorry souls along with the ones really worthy of being saved. I would hope that they would see reason after the fact, and change the law, and not prosecute me.

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...it seems to me that this sort of extension of rights to everyone makes it nearly impossible for us to fight and win the war against Islamic fundamentalism.
If Walid al-Kalb is planning on blowing up NYC in the next 5 minutes and the government gets wind of it, it's perfectly proper for them to shoot the mutt to stop him: this is the "emergency" aspect. A warrantless and illegal fishing expedition conducted in the hope of finding something that can be used to stop an evildoer does not constitute an emergency response. An emergency is when the government (or anyone else) must act immediately in order to stay alive. As Phil put it, it's not the US government who is violating the rights of the soldiers that are being killed in Iraq, it is the terrorists.

The basic question is whether the government has the right to spy on people, and the answer is, yes it does, when the person is threatening to initiate force. This is more or less analogous to the right of a policeman to physically restrain a person who is menacing others (but has not actually stabbed or shot anyone). Ordinarily, the government does not have the right to physically restrain you, but if you actually hit someone or threaten to hit someone, they do have the right to do something that they ordinarily cannot do, because you have implicitly declared your intention to live outside of the rules of civilization. This is the moral source of proper government wiretapping (for example). When an objective analysis of the facts shows reason to believe that Walid al-Kalb is threatening people, then he must be stopped. But the question that remains unanswered is, what right is being violated by wiretapping. This is a real question, and I don't see that it's obvious what that right is, even though I have many feelings and some thoughts on the matter.

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Don't take this post seriously. I came across this in an article on torture.

Taken out of context, it's funny.

The report quoted an Ethiopian-born detainee as saying he was kept in a pitch-black prison and forced to listen to Eminem and Dr. Dre's rap music for 20 days...
Good to know that "music" is good for some purpose.

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Gags wrote: "...what about a situation where the government apprehends a suspected terrorist within the United States? Assume there is reliable information that he's involved in a plot to destroy a large American city and this will cause millions of deaths within a few short hours. Given this context, would you insist that the suspect's rights be assiduously observed despite what is likely to occur?"

If there is reliable information implicating the man in a deadly plot, and if the government follows a proper, objective policy in replying, then the suspect's rights are not being violated.

The wider answer lies in elaborating upon what would comprise a proper, objective policy, which I won't do here (don't have time). But, generally: governments with justified suspicion of criminal intent may rightfully arrest people who later turn out to be innocent. This is not a violation of that individual's rights, it is the result of the government's proper role as delegated defender of the innocent.

In this context -- considering that not every injustice committed by a government is a violation of rights -- it remains true that it is never proper for a government to violate rights. And, it is never practical, as a principle.

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But the question that remains unanswered is, what right is being violated by wiretapping. This is a real question, and I don't see that it's obvious what that right is, even though I have many feelings and some thoughts on the matter.
I assume most people would say that a "right to privacy" was being violated. Perhaps the government is conducting some form of unreasonable search and seizure by listening to phone conversations? Although in this case it appears that there was reasonable cause in the sense that the conversations took place between persons inside the US and foreigners suspected of having terrorist ties. What are your thoughts on it?

In this context -- considering that not every injustice committed by a government is a violation of rights -- it remains true that it is never proper for a government to violate rights. And, it is never practical, as a principle.
Agreed, with the key phrases being "In this context" and "as a principle".

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I assume most people would say that a "right to privacy" was being violated. Perhaps the government is conducting some form of unreasonable search and seizure by listening to phone conversations? Although in this case it appears that there was reasonable cause in the sense that the conversations took place between persons inside the US and foreigners suspected of having terrorist ties. What are your thoughts on it?
The concept "seizure" isn't applicable here: if they had confiscated the telephones or the emails, that would be a seizure, but they didn't so it isn't. Let's insert the text of the 4th Amendment, because it helps to remember what The Constitution says they can't do, with a hint about why: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

If the government plans to frisk your body, enter your house or barn, or open your bags, they are supposed to have a warrant before they enter your place. The NSA snooping was (presumably) off-property, i.e. did not involve busting into somebody's house and leaving a listening device. Given that assumption about the facts -- there was no break in -- then it's not clear to me how a proper "right to not be searched" is applicable here. If the government forced an ISP to give them access to the server, that would be a rights violation. If the government requested an ISP to give access, then the government has not violated anybody's rights (though the ISP may have violated the terms of service agreement, depending on whether they promised not to do so).

My point has been to question, and perhaps deny, that there is a "right to privacy", especially as a separate and primitive right. The kinds of searches that could have happened in pre-electronic days when the 4th was written all fall under the category of basic property rights -- my home is my castle, and you do not have a right to it. I do think though that you have a right to look at my home as you drive past it, even if it means you have to turn your head. But on a very rabid reading of the "right to privacy", you shouldn't ever look at anything of mine (including this post, I suppose), because it invades my privacy. My proposed solution is to make your privacy be a property issue. Read the TOS, and select the ISP who contractually guarantees your privacy. The main leak, as I see it, is that the physical network is partially "public property". I have heard local rumors of the feds trying to force my university to configure the network to make it easier to read everybody's email, which would be beyond the pale, but still, there is some physical point at which they can get non-negotiated access.

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It's never proper? It isn't too hard to think up scenarios where an individual's rights might need to be violated in order to avert a terrorist or other attack. It seems to me that in a time of war or national emergency, there may be occasions when it is simply impractical to observe everyone's rights completely. Of course I'm not saying that all rights go out the window during wartime, but don't practical considerations come into play at some point?

The above in bold can be restated as: "It isn't too hard to think up scenarios where it is proper to sacrifice some for the sake of others."

Edited for spelling.

Edited by IAmMetaphysical

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IAmMetaphysical, are someone's rights being violated if their conversations with suspected terrorists are being taped by the government without a warrant?

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IAmMetaphysical, are someone's rights being violated if their conversations with suspected terrorists are being taped by the government without a warrant?

My above statement was not a question of whether or not wire taps are a violation of rights, it was in response your original statement which presumes that rights are in fact being violated in said scenarios. You did not say: "I can easily think up scenarios where we would have to snoop on people in order to protect against terror attacks." You conceded tha fact that rights would need to be violated, in fact, the topic of this thread is begging the same question. They are both implying that it is necessary to sacrifice the rights of some in order to protect others.

Edited by IAmMetaphysical

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I accept as a moral principle that it is never proper for the government to violate rights. The reason I asked the question above is that I wondered if you had a different take on the phone tap issue. Am I correct in assuming that you don't?

Edited by gags

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Yes, I believe that there is a right to privacy unless there is sufficient evidence that one might be in the process of violating others' rights. No one has the right to violate others' rights, so if they are objectively suspected of doing so, then it is proper to snoop on them to find out.

This says nothing about what has been revealed in regards to the Bush administration because although they may truly have had evidence to back up the snooping (which I believe they probably did) they still needed to go through the correct channels and get the thumbs up from the judicial branch. This could have been done retrospectively, so that they wouldn't lose any time having to go to a judge and get a warrant. The reason they need this judicial oversight is to make sure that thier actions can be objectively justified, and that they don't indeed violate innocent people's right to privacy.

Let me sum up as to avoid confusion on my stance: Criminals (those who violate rights) have no right to have that violation be private. In order to make sure that the government only performs wire-taps on criminals, it is necessary to have the proper judicial oversight so as to adequately check the executive. I do not think that in this instance the Bush administration violated any innocent citizens rights, but that claim is not founded upon evidence, only my confidence in basic human decency, but that is not enough. That is why they should always get a warrant, so that we can be sure that they don't abuse their power.

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If the government plans to frisk your body, enter your house or barn, or open your bags, they are supposed to have a warrant before they enter your place. The NSA snooping was (presumably) off-property, i.e. did not involve busting into somebody's house and leaving a listening device. Given that assumption about the facts -- there was no break in -- then it's not clear to me how a proper "right to not be searched" is applicable here. If the government forced an ISP to give them access to the server, that would be a rights violation. If the government requested an ISP to give access, then the government has not violated anybody's rights (though the ISP may have violated the terms of service agreement, depending on whether they promised not to do so).

I agree with this.

IAmMetaphysical, are someone's rights being violated if their conversations with suspected terrorists are being taped by the government without a warrant?

The rights of the person making a telephone call or sending/receiving an e-mail are not being violated by the surveillance. But it may violate the rights of the telephone company or service provider.

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