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Posts Tagged ‘civil liberties’

Flex your rights has four videos up on Youtube. You should definitely watch these if you live or have plans to live in America.

The intro and the music at the beginning is a bit jarring, and the acting could have been more professional, but overall these videos are well-made. They are an excellent primer on your rights when dealing with police and strategies for asserting these rights effectively but sensibly.

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Officers’ safety comes first, and not infringing on people’s rights comes second.

So spake Lt. Fran Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner of Philadelphia, in response to questions about the police arresting and detaining 9 people who had committed no crime.

Sometimes I wish I was a vigilante, with power and means to confront the Healys of the world and deliver some well-deserved comeuppance.

(Hat tip: Radley Balko)

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The reaction of the TSA — the umbrella organization formed after 9/11 to regulate airline security in the US — to the recent terrorist attempt has been along expected lines. More lines, more meaningless regulations, more stifling security measures. When Richard Reid had the bright idea a few years ago to hide explosives in his shoe, the TSA reacted by asking everyone to take off their shoes henceforth for the security check. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped the explosives onto his underwear, we ought to be thankful that the TSA’s imagination has so far been..um…restricted. I mean, sure, it has issued an order that all babies be put into overhead luggage bins during the last hour of the flight, but consider the much more sinister possibilities.

My thoughts on this issue can be summed up in one sentence: Umar Farouk failed, but we are doing our best to make sure his goal succeeds.

Stephen Bainbridge puts it well:

Has TSA ever considered the possibility that maybe the terrorists aren’t really interested in blowing up a plane. Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures.

Now Professor Bainbridge may be ascribing more subtlety to the terrorists’ modus operandi than they probably possess, but it is worthwhile to pause and think about what he is saying. A free society, by its very nature, offers many targets for terrorists. It is impossible to shut them all down. Nor is terrorism as transcendent a presence as some might want to believe. With smart, mostly non-intrusive measures, the threat can be further reduced. Sure, there will be attacks from time to time, just as there are crimes every day, but the real damage from these attacks are not caused by the incidents themselves, but by our terrorized reaction to them. It is when we fearfully overreach and put into place crippling regulations that cost us time, money and curtail our civil liberties, that the real harm occurs. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

At some point, we need to do a cost benefit analysis: how much hassle, fear and security clampdown is too much? Is it worth going through so much TSA tyranny, much of it a charade,  and give up so much of our convenience, liberty and well-being in an attempt to make our existence slightly more secure against terrorist attacks?

Update: Nate Silver crunches the numbers and concludes that your chances of being on a given flight departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. So you could take 20 flights a year and still be less likely to be attacked than you are to die of a lightning strike.

Update 2: This is hilarious:

Anyway, I have a better idea. Let’s ban all clothing from all flights. Both the shoe bomber and Abdulmutallab used clothing — not Wi-Fi and not live TV — to make their failed attempts. In addition to taking away the possibility of hiding incendiary devices, a total ban on all clothes will also have the following positive results:

1. Terrorists will have a further disincentive from targeting flights, because religious extremists tend to be squeamish about naked people.

2. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because shy people wouldn’t fly, thus reducing the number of flights overall.

3. I don’t know why, but I think people would be more courteous. Talk about friendly skies!

Of course, I’m not serious about the clothing ban. But it makes a lot more sense than the TSA’s new ban on Wi-Fi and in-flight TV.

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This is probably familiar to anyone who has been following the civil war — now declared over by the government — in Sri Lanka, but I missed it till today. It is an oped by Lasantha Wickramatunge, former editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper of Sri Lanka. It was published posthumously and is a chilling piece of writing — not just because it eloquently defends civil liberties — but because Wikramatunge was murdered in January this year, exactly as he predicted in the linked essay. Do read it if you haven’t already.

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I get plenty of junk in my Facebook feed every day most of which I barely give a second glance; today however, one particular item caught my eye. Titled “Vigil for Binayak Sen”, this particular Facebook event was in support of Dr. Binayak Sen, whose continued detainment by the Chhattisgarh government violates every principle of justice. Not only has he not been charged with any recognizable criminal offence, the laws under which he was arrested allow for arbitrary detention without any right of appeal: he has been in jail since May 2007 with no end in sight.

All that, however has nothing to do with why I am writing this post; the reason is because the description of this event  begins as follows,

Jonathan Mann award winner and civil liberties activist, doctor of the poor, Dr. Binayak Sen has been jailed by Govt. of India under fabricated charge of being a supporter of Maoism.

But why should it matter who Dr. Sen supports? Maybe he supports the Maoists, maybe he does not. That fact is completely irrelevant. If freedom means anything, it means the right to expouse any views, however repugnant. If you believe in freedom of thought and speech, supporting an organization, whether it is is the Maoists or Al-Qaeda or the Nazis, should never be a crime. It is only directly criminal deeds that ought to be actionable, nothing else; not views, not speech, not associations.

By starting the description of the event in this manner, the author automatically gives an impression that this arrest is wrong because Binayak Sen is accused of supporting the Maoists while he in truth does not. BS!  This arrest is wrong because it violates individual liberty and it’s wrongness would not reduce even the slightest were Binayak Sen the greatest supporter of Maoism in the world. Why are so few people inclined to defend liberty purely for liberty’s sake?

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This is pathetic.

I hope the guy has a forgiving temperament, because if it was me, the `ex-girlfriend’ would have very bad things happening to her for the rest of her life. I can comprehend murder, abuse or theft for revenge or gain. I can comprehend the most terrible act of tyranny for a selfish cause. Of course I do not condone them, but at some level, I do understand — without necessarily sympathising with — those things and recognize the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. 

Using the force of law to take away another’s liberty just because you think that would be good for him I cannot understand. Or ever forgive.

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Here’s the link. It’s a long poignant piece that points out the folly of the drug war by focussing on the outrageous case of Cheye Calvo.

The fact that pieces like these do appear in the mainstream media (Washington Post is regarded as one of the three most important US newspapers, along with NYT and WSJ) is a hopeful sign. That, and the fact that a majority of people in the US want marijuana decriminalized according to recent polls, suggests that the tide is turning.

In contrast, while I lived in India, I do not remember seeing a single pro-legalization article in any newspaper, magazine or television channel. However, attitudes can change fast, especially in this globalized world, and if the US ever decides to go the legalization route, I predict that much of the world will follow suit within ten years.

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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I am a long time reader of Radley Balko’s outstanding blog, The Agitator, and I have seldom seen him this jubilant.

From yesterday’s post:

Credit where it’s due: Well done, Mr. Obama. I’m sure we’ll have our differences, but afer your first 40+ hours on the job, this libertarian couldn’t be happier.

The tally:

  • Obama rescinded Bush’s 2001 executive order allowing former presidents, vice presidents, and their heirs to claim executive privilege in determining which of their records get released to the public. Even better, he’s requiring the signature of both his White House counsel and the attorney general before he can classify a document under executive privilege.
  • Issued a memorandum to all executive agencies asking them to come up with a new plan for open government and complying with FOIA requests. […]
  • Put a freeze on the salaries of top White House aides.
  • Suspended the military trials at Gitmo, and is expected to issue an order closing Gitmo as soon as today.
  • Said this:

    “For a long time now there has been too much secrecy in this city.  […] The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and holding it accountable. I expect my administration not only to live up to the letter but the spirit of this law.”

  • Yes, it’s only been one day. But this is mighty impressive. Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to sign orders rolling back his predecessor’s expansion of executive power. Put another way, Obama’s top priority upon taking office was to institute limits on his own power.

    That’s something even a cynic like me can celebrate.

    And today:

    Rock ‘n’ Roll:

    President Obama yesterday eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects. […]Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.

    It’s worth emphasizing again here these steps Obama’s taking effectively limit his own power. That’s extraordinary.

    […]

    In that regard, if I may borrow a phrase: mission accomplished.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say mission accomplished. But these are certainly very important steps and ones that libertarians ought to applaud the president for. 

    I have criticized Obama on several occasions on this blog. Undoubtedly I’ll do so on many more. His basic economic philosophy is some kind of pragmatic statism, his ideology stresses on sacrifices and obligations rather than liberty and he displayed some disturbing tendencies towards censorship during the campaign. But he is also a sensible and highly intelligent person and his actions so far have been far more friendly towards freedom than his rhetoric has been (that’s a trade-off I’ll happily take).

    So credit where credit’s due. Well done.

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    A new Georgia law requires anyone convicted of a sex offence in the past to hand over all their user-names and passwords to the government.

    Mind you, this law isn’t aimed only at child rapists and suchlike. It will cover everyone who has ever been convicted of a sex related offence. In essence, what this law says is, if you err sexually once — however minor your crime is — you lose all  privacy rights for the rest of your life. Oh — and did I mention that past laws have already made it impossible for these people to find a home or get a job long after they have finished serving their sentences?

    Actually, I think these are great laws. For they further a very important principle: offenders must never ever be allowed to reintegrate into society.

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    Even in the context of American style conservative nanny-statism, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is an extraordinary law. A direct offspring of the  “American Values Agenda”, this law, passed in 2006, in combination with the Wire Act effectively prohibits any kind of internet gambling operation in America. The law outlaws games of pure chance like online slot-machines, any kind of wager on the outcome of sporting or election events as well as games of skill like online poker. In April 2007, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to overturn the Act, saying “The existing legislation is an inappropriate interference on the personal freedom of Americans and this interference should be undone.” On June 7, 2007, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) introduced HR 2610, the Skill Game Protection Act. This act would legalize Internet poker, bridge, chess, and other games of skill. On September 26, 2008, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S.3616, the Internet Skill Game Licensing and Control Act. This bill would amend title 31, United States Code, to provide for the licensing of Internet skill game facilities, and for other purposes. None of these bills have passed as yet.

    It is worth noting that the law only targets the gambling website or a financial institution used for the transaction. The act of gambling itself is legal, or at least quasi-legal in so far that the Feds have never prosecuted an individual for gambling online. Nonetheless, the presence of the UIGEA means that it extremely difficult to find a website that will accept a customer living in the USA.

    There are many laws that take away individual freedom in order to protect a person from his own choices. However, there are two features that make the UIGEA particularly egregious.

    First of all, the Act is blatantly discriminatory because physical gambling is already legal in much of the USA. One can go to a Vegas casino and legally play all the games that the UIGEA bans. So an important consequence of the Act is that it helps boost the business of influential Las Vegas hotels. Corporatism and special interests have always played their part in the Bush administration and this law is another example where a policy that favors large business houses is cloaked in the garb of public interest.

    Secondly, the American government has decided that the UIGEA not only applies to companies based in the US but also any internet company situated anywhere in the world that accepts a bet from an American. Most of these companies have been forced to shut down their US business after the passage of this act. Those that were less careful paid harshly. On July 16, 2006 David Carruthers, the CEO of BetOnSports, an UK based online gambling website, was arrested at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas while changing planes on his way from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica. He is still under 24 hours house detention in a hotel in St. Louis awaiting trial. Shortly later, Gary Kaplan, the founder of the same company, was arrested in the Dominican Republic. He was extradited into U.S. custody with the help of the Interpol and currently faces up to 83 years of imprisonment. The Canadian founders of Neteller, strong opponents of the UIGEA, were similarly detained while on a visit to the US.

    All this despite the fact that operating a gambling website is fully legal in all the countries that these individuals were based in.

    Notwithstanding the Kaplan episode, the actual probability of the US extraditing the operator of an online gambling company from another country is low. This is primarily for diplomatic reasons, as outlined in this excellent paper. However, if such a person ever accidentally sets foot on US soil, woe befall.

    The real damage of the UIGEA, however, is to millions of American customers whose basic freedom to spend their money in the way they want is curtailed. This point of view was eloquently presented by Radley Balko, senior Reason editor and popular blogger, in a courageous testimony to the US Congress:

    Online poker is merely a new evolution of the game, similar to the way Civil War poker games introduced the straight, and gave us variations like draw and stud poker. The Internet merely removes the geographic barrier preventing those who love the game from finding opponents of similar skill who are willing to wager similar amounts of money.

    No one is hurt when two or more consenting adults sit down for a game of poker, be it online or in person. Why any of this should be of concern to the federal government is rather perplexing. I respect the fact that many Americans—and many members of Congress—may have moral objections to gambling, online or otherwise. To them, I’d say, simply, “don’t gamble, then.”

    But in a nation where Las Vegas is one of our fastest growing cities and most popular tourist destinations, where Indian casinos are commonplace, where horse racing is a national past time, and where nearly every state in the union derives public funds from state lotteries, singling out Internet gambling for prohibition seems arbitrary and, frankly, hypocritical.

    Yes, it’s possible a parent could bet away their family’s savings, or their child’s education fund in an online poker game. They could also fritter that money away on eBay. Or on booze. Or fancy cars and exotic travel.

    These are all personal decisions, of course. And if a free society means anything, it means we should have the freedom to make bad choices, in addition to good ones. The ban on Internet gambling punishes the millions of Americans who were wagering online responsibly due to anecdotal evidence of a few who may do so irresponsibly. It’s an affront to personal responsibility, and symptomatic of a Nanny Statist government that treats its citizens like children. A government based on the principle of liberty doesn’t police the personal lives of its citizens for bad habits, at any level, much less at the federal level.

    The UIGEA also happens to be one of those nanny-state laws that has personally affected me.

    I wrote earlier how betting on political futures is a smart investment for the politically savvy citizen. However, when I actually wanted to place a bet on the election results, I found that most websites refused to accept my credit card. Finally I found one, Sportsbook, that did. After doing some research and satisfying myself that Sportsbook is one of the most reputable and reliable companies in the online gambling business, I placed a significant bet on Obama winning the election and a smaller bet on his winning Florida. This was at a time when my calculated probability of his winning these two was significantly higher than the perception of the typical American adult, as a result of which I got excellent odds.

    I ended up making an eighty percent profit and put in a withdrawal request. However it was taking some time for my money to reach me, so after two weeks I asked them what the matter was. To my surprise, I got an immediate and friendly reply. They explained in detail exactly what the problem was. They stated unambiguously that they had never missed a payment and they will ensure I get my money. However, the UIGEA forced them to resort to long-winded payment procedures to circumvent the law. They send me a link to this post that explained exactly how they do it

    From then on, they sent me a weekly update about the status of my withdrawal request. And when they finally said the cheque was on its way, I received it in a couple of days.

    So here’s my recommendation. If you want to place an online bet, use Sportsbook. Their exemplary customer service was the one shining light in this whole sordid episode.

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    I fully agree with all those people who think captured terrorist Ajmal Amir should not be have the right to a lawyer or a proper trial.

    Rights like these might make sense in countries with an excess of freedom but they have no place in our nation. There may be some people who believe that the rule of law is too important to be set aside for emotional satisfaction and others who like to spend their ink writing about jurisprudence and the perils of setting bad precedents and suchlike. I say, screw them!

    We Indians are an emotional lot, we prefer to express our outrage in the old fashioned way. When have we cared that much about foreign concepts like civil liberties anyway? You can’t talk of proper legal procedures when there is no rule of law to begin with. All this talk about presumption of innocence is pure baloney in a country where so many people die at the hands of criminals everyday. So I  say, torture Ajmal Amir for three days and then hang him in broad daylight without a trial. In fact also slap sedition charges on any lawyer who has declared an intent to extend legal help to that bastard. Such people do not deserve to live among us.  Mahesh Deshmukh, if you think the beating you got at the hand of Shiv Sainiks was bad, wait till you see how prison feels!

    And let’s not stop at Ajmal, henceforth hang anyone who a majority of people in the country want to kill at some given moment. After all, we are a democracy and an emotional one to boot.

    (Here’s a related post by Aristotle the Geek)

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    A PIL has been filed in India asking to get Google Earth banned. Apparently the terrorists used Google images to plot their attacks.

    Considering that the terrorists also used buses, trains, cellphones and a fishing boat, perhaps we should ban those as well.

    And while we are at it, we should make sure that there are no loopholes. After all, most of the data supplied by Google is provided by other parties. Even if Google Earth is no longer accessible from India, one would be able to get the information from other sources. So let us block those sites as well, indeed ban all data obtained by satellites or cameras, and ensure that such data cannot be sent into India from outside the country. Regulating the internet would be a good start.

    But here’s a prediction: after all this is done, a resourceful individual will still be able to get any information he wants. For information is a rebellious bird, it can never, ever be caged. The same however, is not true of the government.

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    Radley Balko reacts to the Pentagon plan that would have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe.

    I predict that while now couched in terms of the necessity for a ready response to a cataclysmic terrorist attack, within five years there will be calls to use these forces for less urgent matters, such as crowd control at political conventions, natural disaster response, border control, and, inevitably, some components of the drug war (looking for marijuana in the national parks, for example).

    I completely agree. Not all government measures are necessarily prone to the slippery-slope effect. Effective and unambiguous boundaries — such as constitutional rights supplemented by tough laws — can indeed limit the scope of state action. Unfortunately, this particular plan is precisely the kind that will become a monster. If domestic laws were different, victimless crimes legalized, an expanded right to privacy enshrined in the constitution, civil liberties protected strongly, things may have been different. But in the current setup, any measure that further militarizes domestic security must be opposed. We don’t need more armored tanks in the hands of the police.

    National security and public interest have always been the favourite phrases of those who advocate increased state power. Yes, security is important. But at what cost?

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    The terrorists killed over a hundred innocent people yesterday. This wasn’t an act that took place in some distant part of the world. It happened in a city I care about, one that I have spent four summers in and where many of my friends live or have family. The attack was astounding in its scope and daring — no suicide bombers this time around but machine gun wielding militants taking hostages in posh hotels. The country is outraged and for good reason.

    Yet, and yet. This is just a small thing compared to what could and looks likely to happen now. There are calls for much tougher anti-terrorism laws, possibly more draconian than what the US introduced after 9/11. In a poll conducted today by an Indian newspaper, 95% supported such measures. If laws like these are passed, the Indian police will relish in using them. Thousands of people will be rounded up on mere suspicion, many of those unrelated to terror. Some will be locked up for months, perhaps years. Phones will be tapped, due process suspended. You are thinking, all of that won’t happen to me. And you may be right, but rest assured that it will happen to many people just like you. It is when this atmosphere of panic and police-statism takes over our nation that the terrorists will have truly won this one.

    QI hits the nail on the head:

    The easiest reaction in a situation like this is to call for tougher laws, all of which aim to circumvent the adherence to due process. Due process anyway gets short shrift here in India, and do we really want to legitimise that? […]Shouldn’t better investigation, more co-ordination and better training be looked at first, instead of giving the police arbitrary powers to harass citizens? […] I am just terrified by the knowledge that by bringing in such laws, we have pretty much capitulated to terrorism – their objective of destroying the civil and democratic fabric of India will have been achieved. And contrary to what people feel, these won’t be effective deterrents. Simply because, in my mind, they do not address the root of the problems plaguing our law-enforcement esablishments.

    He is right. The Indian police and intelligence agencies suffer from severe deficiencies. They need to be revamped. There needs to be better training, coordination and other changes. But these will have to smart changes. We don’t need knee-jerk reactions here. The deterrence value of laws that suspend due process is small and costs to essential freedoms huge. The Indian establishment could do much worse than read Bruce Shneier’s excellent blog on security measures to get some pointers.

    A heavy handed law that curtails civil liberties will be a tragedy far greater than any terror attack. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We should keep this in mind and fight to preserve the intangible things that are truly valuable, even as we take measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

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