Natural Law and the concepts of democracy form the basis for human rights, but then there’s the question of limitations to a person’s human rights; one of these limitations is the so-called “greater good”.
The argument on “greater good” asserts that the responsibility to humanity forfeits individual rights, that the success of that responsibility justifies all the trouncing on human rights involved (Centre for Constitutional Rights). And so the atomic bombing of Japan by the US has been justified by the fact that it ended the Second World War.
The US government, after 9/11 is increasingly being accused of human rights abuses and many people under suspicion, real or imagined, of terrorism have been illegally detained without trial and tortured. This paper will take an insight into the concept of the “greater good” in relation to the Habeas Corpus (a provision in the US constitution).
Habeas Corpus, also known as the Great Writ, is a constitutional legal provision that is meant to prevent the government from detaining or holding anyone without giving cause (Centre for Constitutional Rights). It also gives detainees the right to petition against detention done by the government; in that case the executive branch of the government must give a legal justification for the detention before a judge (Centre for Constitutional Rights).
In the US, Habeus Corpus is enshrined in the first article of the constitution, but as part of the response to 9/11 by the US government, the Military Commissions Act (MCA) was passed by the Congress in 2006 (Centre for Constitutional Rights). It is this MCA that took away the right to habeas corpus from Guantanamo Bay detainees and any other foreigners detained as “enemy combatant” (Centre for Constitutional Rights).
But evidence has shown that most if not all Guantanamo Bay detainees have not been captured by US forces or caught in the battlefield, and most of the men have not even been legally charged with any crime (Centre for Constitutional Rights). Approximately 800 people have been held so far and only 10 of them have been charged (CCR), the rest continues to face torture, sham trials and so on (Centre for Constitutional Rights).
But the MCA does not only apply to foreigners or Guantanamo Bay detainees as it also applies to legal US residents, even those who have lived in the US for many years are susceptible to being labeled “enemy combatant” and detained without trial (Centre for Constitutional Rights). Probably the most famous of these is the detention of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the subject of David Egger’s book ‘Zeitoun’, along with three other colleagues (Pilkington).
Zeitoun, a Syrian- American citizen living in New Orleans had stayed behind in the face of the Hurricane Katrina to watch over his property. For days after the Katrina had subsided, paddling in his small canoe, he had been running a one-man rescue mission (of his neighbors and animals). In the end, he and his three colleagues were arrested by the US government for allegedly being terrorists; eventually, he was detained for almost a month, while his colleagues were detained for much longer (Pilkington).
The question of the “greater good” against human rights cannot be fully understood but it can be nevertheless be investigated through Plural Legal Order (PLOs); these are institutions, rules or norms formed by a group of people or society to secure stability (International Council on Human Rights Policy).
These are applicable in situations where one dispute is governed by more than one law, norm or forum co-existing within one jurisdiction; these norms, laws and forums describe what is wrong or right and how to or not to act (International Council on Human Rights Policy). Currently, the US has grown paranoiac which has led to the heightened level of vigilance; this state of things, as explained has come as part of the response to 9/11 and the effort to avert another attack.
Whether it can be used to justify these human rights violations depends on whether these detentions are credible, as it is, the government has no way of ascertaining people’s suspicions. Otherwise the arrest of an innocent man like Zeitoun wouldn’t have happened; sadly 9/11 was and has been the impetus for the MCA and the many unjustified detentions, notably the Guantanamo Bay tortures. But the case of Zeitoun presents a puzzle on the question of the “greater good”; that is, how is the “greater good” quantified?
Zeitoun had been giving relief to his neighbors because the government was not present at the time; because the government could not get to the needy at the time, its forces went in to arrest an innocent man. It makes one wonder if a harmless man was the key to the “greater good” under the circumstances for instance, or the assistance of the trapped and the dying.
One may argue that if Zeitoun had really been a terrorist then he would have presented the worst threat to the country. But how well that threat to a mostly deserted area could be measured against the threat of the aftermath of Katrina to justify the prioritization of the arrest remains a puzzle.
It is also worth noting that Zeitoun and his colleagues were detained in Camp Greyhound, a makeshift detention centre constructed specifically for the detainees picked in the aftermath of Katrina. The camp held at least 1,200 detainees, all denied their rights to habeas corpus (Pilkington); thus, one is bound to wonder why the same wasn’t done for relief purposes.
For the government, the aftermath of Katrina presented two questions: humanitarian and terrorism. The former was real and doing something about it would have furthered the concept of human rights, the latter was imagined and doing something about it meant not abusing or favoring human rights, depending on whether the people detained really posed any threat to the general US population. The government prioritized the latter.
9/11 altered the US state of things, especially the general reception of Islam; at the same time, the US explicitly came to be seen as the biggest and most potential target of terrorist attacks. The US culture, in all its variants has therefore had to adapt to this interplay of factors; unfortunately, part of this has been at the expense of those living within US borders, especially foreigners.
Although this vigilance has partly been the key to the fact that there hasn’t been another attack, the question of “greater good” and habeas corpus cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. This is an example of “cultural relativism” (International Council on Human Rights Policy) where the people are divided between what is right and what is wrong against the government having to do what it thinks is necessary.
As it is said, “human rights fall within, not outside, culture and normative systems” (International Council on Human Rights Policy). The state is an example of normative system as it defines human rights in its context; thus, “people are the bearers of rights and culture, and recognizing the rights does not mean that culture is to be rejected (International Council on Human Rights Policy).
Centre for Constitutional Rights. What is Habeas Corpus? 2011. Web.
International Council on Human Rights Policy. When Legal World Overlap: Human Rights, State and Non-State Law, 2009. Web.
Pilkington. The Amazing True Story of Zeitoun, 2010. Web.