What’s in a name? Part Two

The other day, I wrote:

Intellectual honesty [for a blogger] cannot easily be defined, much less reduced to rules. At a minimum, however, it should preclude the use of the personal attack as a substitute for arguments. . . .And it should preclude knowingly making bad arguments. It probably also entails some obligation not knowingly to ignore good evidence and good arguments that cut against one’s point of view on issues that one has elected to write about.

I guess that means I should address the arguments made by super-smart Oxblogger David Adesnik against my defense of the use of the phrase “terrorist rights wing of the Republican party” to refer to Senators McCain, Graham, et al. Here is what David said:

THE TERRORIST RIGHTS WING OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY”: I was very, very angry when I read Paul Mirengoff of Power Line describe John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Warner and their supporters (of which I am one) as “the terrorist rights wing of the Republican Party.”

After a number of readers objected to this description, Mirengoff posted a defense of the phrase, which was seconded by John Hinderaker. I believe Paul and John are arguing in good faith, so I will take their position seriously. Here is what I take to be Paul’s central argument:

As short-hand descriptions go, “terrorist rights” gets it just about right. For that is precisely McCain and company have been pushing for — the right of terrorists to more judicial process than they initially were granted; the right of terrorists to avoid aggressive interrogation techniques that the administration successfully has used to obtain important information from them; the right of terrorists to find out more about the evidence that will be used against them than the administration was willing to have disclosed in certain cases, and so forth. The term “terrorist rights” is no more unfair as applied to these advocates than the term “gay rights” is for advocates of gay marriage, legalizaion of gay sexual practices, etc.

I want to begin with Paul’s analogy to the question of gay rights. I think it is fair to say that advocates of gay rights believe that homosexuals, at minimum, should be entitled to the exact same rights as other citizens. Not just more rights than they have now, but equal rights.

I also think it is fair to say that advocates of gay rights believe that homosexuality is the moral equivalent of heterosexuality. My point being that it is appropriate to refer to someone as an advocate of “terrorist rights” if they argue that terrorism is morally acceptable and that terrorists deserve the same rights as others.

Now let me broaden my argument a bit, since I want it to rest on more than one analogy. In general, when we speak of someone as an advocate of a certain group’s rights, what do we mean?

Consider the following terms: women’s rights, minority rights, workers’ rights, and prisoners’ rights. I think that the phrases “women’s rights” and “minority rights” entail assumptions very similar to the term “gay rights”. Both of them assert that the group in question are moral equivalents of a preferred group and therefore deserve equal rights.

Workers’ rights is a different kind of concept. It usually refers to the belief that workers deserve a specified set of benefits and protections, not that they deserve the same rights as employers. In that sense, there is a rough analogy to what McCain et. al. want for terrorists, which is a limited set of protections. However, no advocate of workers’ rights sees being a worker as something inherently evil.

What about prisoners’ rights? Leaving aside the issue of rights for those who may have been wrongly convicted, prisoners’ rights refers to a set of benefits and protections for those who have been incarcerated as a result of a committing a crime. In addition, there is a negative moral status attached to being a prisoner, but really that status is attached to being a criminal, not to being in prison.

Criminals are bad from the moment they commit their crime (or perhaps earlier). Their badness has nothing to do with whether or not they have already been caught and sent to prison.

Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the phrase “criminals’ rights”, because that is how the advocates of rougher justice describe the cause of those who speak out on behalf of prisoners. Just as McCain, regardless of his intentions, defends the rights of terrorists, the ACLU and others defend the rights of criminals.

But the critical point to recognize is that the ACLU etc. aren’t petitioning for such rights because they believe that committing a crime entitles one to certain protections, but rather that there are limits to how a democratic government can punish those in its custody.

By extension, there is nothing wrong with describing John McCain or Lindsey Graham or John Warner or OxBlog as an advocate of detainee rights. Those detained by our government still have certain rights, even if they are terrorists. But if that same terrorist were not in US custody but in the crosshairs of a US army sniper, we damn sure would want his head blown off. That is why it is flat out wrong to call us advocates of terrorist rights.

I think David is saying that to be called an advocate of some group’s rights it’s not enough just to want to increase the rights of members of that group to a level comparable to what members of some other group enjoy. In addition, your advocacy must be motivated by the belief that members of the one group are the moral equivalent of members of the other group, or at least by a belief that the group you’re advocating protection for is not morally reprehensible. And David defends his definition, which adds a requirement that can’t be derived simply from the plain meaning of the phrase “terrorist rights advocate,” by looking to other instances in which we call someone an advocate of a certain type of rights.

I don’t find his argument persuasive. To me, if you’re advocating additional rights for group “x,” then it’s fair to call you a group “x” rights advocate without worrying about your motive. It would be unfair to call Lindsey Graham a terrorist rights advocate if a reader reasonably could think I’m implying he believes terrorists are not evil. But no reasonable reader could think that. My view is that the badly misguided Graham wants to confer extra rights on terrorists despite the fact that they are evil. My label for someone who thinks terrorism is morally acceptable would be “terrorist sympathizer” or “terrorist apologist,” not “terrorist rights advocate.”

David’s discussion of analogous phrases — “gay rights,” “women’s rights,” “workers rights,” “prisoners rights” and “criminal rights” — is interesting but largely inconclusive. In each instance, the proponent is advocating expanded rights for a group, just as Graham and McCain are advocating enhanced rights for terrorists. Beyond that, as David concedes, there are differences. Nor is it clear to me that, in each of his examples, the rights proponent necessarily has no moral objection to the status or practices of the group whose rights are to be expanded. One can hold very negative views about homosexuality and still be in favor of gay rights on libertarian grounds. And David agrees that one can find prisoners morally repugnant and still believe that they should be treated more humanely than they often are (the argument that it’s the criminality that’s repugnant, not the imprisonment, is cutting it a bit too fine for me).

I can understand why David would rather be called a “detainee rights advocate” than a “terrorist rights advocate,” but to me the former phrase is too antiseptic. We’re talking about a specific type of detainee — terrorists (and almost always foreign terrorists). The label we attach to those who wish to confer on them rights comparable to those enjoyed by traditional POWs, or remotely comparable to those we confer on our own soldiers when they run afoul of the military justice system, should emphasize, not obscure, the true character of (and danger posed by) the beneficiaries of these rights.

Finally, moving past the question of labels, let’s note the irony and underlying absurdity of the McCain position, as David presents it. If a terrorist is “in the crosshairs of a US sniper,” then McCain and company “want his head blown off.” But if we instead happen to capture the terrorist, we can’t waterboard him in order to obtain vital information, even though we waterboard some members of our own armed forces during training, and even though we may well save more innocent lives by waterboarding the terrorist than by shooting him.