Why I’m a Hina Shamsi fan
The best thing about seeing Hina Shamsi on Now was being reminded that there are people who care about human rights. High concepts are important in themselves, but sometimes get lost in daily living. When someone like Hina Shamsi invests her soul in sharing high concepts, these concepts become more real and easier to grasp. I YouTubed her segment, hoping more people will see it and think about the issues she raises:
As you can see, she’s an intelligent, poised and dedicated speaker on human rights, and makes her points with quiet dignity and calm. By all means let’s see more Hina Shamsi on mainstream media!
The second best thing about seeing Hina Shamsi on Now is that the discussion brought up issues I’ve pondered and written about. On the one hand, we don’t want to become an elitist society. On the other hand, there are dangers to excessive populism. Former RNC chair Michael Steele kept harping on the point that the average person in the street doesn’t care about Miranda rights for suspected terrorists. This really set me off.
Documents like the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are meant to elevate us and rescue us from mob rule. They’re meant to take high concepts concerning the fundamental worth of each individual and how we should try and treat each other under all circumstances (but especially under circumstances of conflict), and make these ideals practical by providing guidelines to be followed.
Many of the rights enshrined in these documents protect minorities, or people who may be unpopular, or who may be accused of wrongdoing. These documents embody great wisdom because they recognize that human judgement often errs, human justice often fails, and both political elites and populist movements can unfairly target groups and individuals for punishment on an undifferentiated basis. Merely accusing someone of a heinous crime, or of holding unpopular views, can easily subject him or her to severe punishment in a society which fails to follow the rule of law.
It is a challenge for all nations, including America, to follow the rule of law, and to do so even when it feels subjectively difficult. In practice, the human tendency is to keep some wonderful laws sanctifying human rights on the books, but only apply them to people we like. This is like giving medicine only to healthy people, not to the sick who really need it.
I wonder how much our young students are being taught about the “veil of ignorance” doctrine and how it helps us design laws and economic policies shaped by fairness. As applied to the Geneva Convention, the veil of ignorance doctrine says that we cannot foresee all the eventualities of war, or when soldiers from our own nation may be taken captive. Therefore, let us establish universal rules for treatment of prisoners so that no prisoners anywhere are tortured. This is meant to be an absolute rule that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of who started the conflict under what pretext or what the underlying economic or geopolitical issues are. You don’t torture prisoners. Period.
The same applies to Miranda rights. Suppose you’re caught up in some type of police sweep. Maybe you were just walking home from work and headed down a block where a demonstration was taking place. Suddenly you’re cuffed and thrown in a police van. Do you want to be read your rights and to contact an attorney, or should those things be denied you based on a pre-assumption that you’re guilty or a troublemaker? For you to have your rights, others must also have theirs. Otherwise those rights will atrophy and won’t be there when you need them.
Human rights laws tend to be informed by the insight that we are all members of one tribe: the human tribe. However, often in times of conflict we create an objectified Other who is demonized to such an extent that human rights no longer seem to apply. We need to step back and remind ourselves of basic set theory: Is this person human? Then they have human rights. Only very foolish, narrow-minded, or power-hungry people take away human rights exactly when they’re needed most: when there is geopolitical conflict, or when people are accused of wrongdoing, or accused of holding unpopular views, or of worshipping God differently than their neighbours, or of hailing from a different tribe.
For human rights to be meaningful, they must be applied consistently and evenhandedly, not just when it’s pleasant, convenient, popular, or politically expedient to do so. When human rights become discretionary–to be doled out according to the whims of some governing authority–they cease to be rights at all.
Thank you Hina Shamsi for inspiring me to think and write about these things!
* * *