Take away our civil and political rights, and where then would we be? Probably not in a place where we would want to live. Civil and political rights have been an integral, in fact probably the most essential part of what we are, those all precious individual rights that were set down for all time by the Framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Granted that immediately following our rejection of George III’s authority not all the inhabitants of the new country found themselves in possession of these rights. In fact, there were large numbers of our people—women, Blacks, native Americans, occasionally Asians and others — who saw little or nothing of these rights and had at the start little or no role to play in the early governance of the country.
But our then shameful mistake of excluding these groups was not the same as our not creating a polity where civil and political rights would be the bedrock on which everything else would be subsequently constructed.
For we did create and firmly establish the bedrock, and subsequently, through an at times highly painful series of civil rights movements, ranging from civil wars to uncivil sit-ins, we set about the business of including all those who had been previously and wrongfully excluded. And although we’re not yet there we have come a long way from where we began.
But, while we can say that we are a country that at least within its own boundaries is starting to live up to its ideals much of the rest of the world in regard to its respect for human rights is still entrenched in the past. The world is still home to too many authoritarian regimes and too much uncivil behavior.
The world in respect to the recognition of individual civil and political rights has not kept up with us, this accounting for most of our quarrel with that world. Not to mention the particular difficulty if not quarrel we have even with countries we struggle to keep as our friends. (See Milburn Line’s op ed piece in today’s Times, Counterpoint, A New Plan for Columbia,)
If we were still as isolated as at the time of our founding the differences between us and others of the world’s nations would be much less important, as was the case at that earlier time. But it is more and more just one world and more and more we are a part of that world, a world that by and large does not share our own firm commitment to protecting the civil and political rights of all.
In fact there are any number of countries in the world where civil rights— such as ensuring a people’s physical integrity and safety; such as protecting them from discrimination on grounds of physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, national origin, age; such as according them freedom of thought and conscience, speech and expression, religion, the press, and movement — are for the most part neglected or absent.
And there are any number of countries where political rights, such as natural justice (procedural fairness) in law, the rights of the accused, including the right to a fair trial; due process; the right to seek redress; the rights of participation in civil society and politics such as freedom to assemble, to petition, and to vote, are also no less neglected or absent.
Now much of our international diplomacy, probably most of it, has to be concerned with, deeply troubled by, the fact, that protecting human rights, perhaps that quality of our lives that most makes us what we are, or at least would want to be, is not widespread and established in many of the countries with which we trade and maintain other on-going relationships.
We must have asked ourselves on innumerable occasions in the past and we must be asking ourselves now in the present whether we should cultivate friendly relations with any country where rights that we believe are fundamental to man’s nature are not respected.
The answer we usually give is to say, yes, in many cases we should. For we say that we have to relate with these countries as they are with all their differences from us, and when at all possible (as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan et al.) we have to do so in a helpful and a friendly manner.
We have somehow concluded that if we would change other countries, make them more like ourselves in regard to recognizing the civil and political rights of their peoples, we can’t begin to do so by isolating them. We do seem to believe, probably naively, perhaps incorrectly, that their contacts with us will eventually change them and move them in our direction.
Of course up until now we have no proof that this is the case yet still pursue this policy. We go on maintaining friendly relations, for example, with a whole group of Islamic countries, who have done little or nothing to stop the Islamic extremists and terrorists among their own peoples, let alone recognize and adopt our attitudes towards what we see are universal and individual and human rights, not just American or European.
The country Turkey, and still our friend, is a case in point. Just today in an op ed piece, How to Win the Clash of Civilizations in the Wall Street Journal AYAAN HIRSI ALI points out that:
“A year ago Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan congratulated Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his re-election after he blatantly stole the presidency. Then Turkey joined forces with Brazil to try to dilute the American-led effort to tighten U.N. sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear arms program. Most recently, Turkey sponsored the “aid flotilla” designed to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza and to hand Hamas a public relations victory.”
We overlook these actions by this “friendly Muslim state” and instead go on seeing Turkey as an “island of Muslim moderation in a sea of extremism” and even urge the EU to accept Turkey as a member of their Union.
What will it take for our country to place the civil and political rights of individuals, all individuals, high up on its own list of international priorities, and refuse to be friends, say, with countries that do not properly and sufficiently recognize these rights?
We are now acting, or rather not acting and ignoring what is really going on in the world at large, much as we failed to act in our own country during the nearly 100 years following our Civil War.
This was a time during which we excused the racism of the South and, perhaps in exchange for friendly relations with Southern leaders, allowed their Jim Crow policy, which included the segregation and lynching of the Blacks, to become established throughout the states of the former Confederacy.
The mobs in Afghanistan stoning the young woman adulteress are not too different from the lynching mobs in the Jim Crow South. What will it take to stop them? Probably something quite different from the wars that we are now waging to little effect.
Perhaps a clash of civilizations.