In a post-9/11 world, “where is the balance . . . between fighting terror and respecting human rights?” asks Amnesty International executive director Schulz, endeavoring to reconcile practical reality with principled ideals.
This requires, first, some international consensus on human rights, which the author explains have been chewed over for years through religious, natural-law, and philosophical-pragmatist versions, achieving (marginally) satisfactory contours in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, as per the US, it is important to make sure these rights are protected on the homefront and abroad, tempering “that part of the American disposition inclined to trump liberty with order, to engage in moral preening, to reserve rights for the worthy and Right to the powerful.” Schulz would like to see some flexibility injected into the human-rights equation, an avoidance of incompatible ethical absolutes. A renewed commitment for human rights on the part of the American government, he believes, should be matched by a willingness of human-rights workers to rethink some sacred assumptions. A public emergency may require compromise on some right, such as travel, or on the nature of a criminal prosecution. Unsurprisingly, these compromises are not treated lightly by Schulz, who exquisitely analyzes their necessity and proportionality while making a case for their sensible deployment in times of crisis. (For example, the cessation of air travel on the afternoon of 9/11.) Ultimately, he argues, exercising human rights steals the extremists’ thunder: if the international community can devise a list of human rights, however flawed, it suggests that in a global sense some rights are held to be self-evident, desirable to the highest degree. Human rights are basic respect for the body and the soul; they may be tempered, in extremis, to protect legions of lives, but never cynically or hypocritically, never through embracing tyrants, never to create more bitterness.
Well-mulled, field-tested, freethinking notions on the role of human rights in diminishing the appeal of extremism.