Our Bad People and Their Rights

Our Bad People and Their Rights December 15, 2014

Americans, writes Brandon McGinley in The danger of taking for granted that America is a just society, can avoid facing the problem that some Americans suffer injustice not accidentally but systemically, by assuming that the victims are “Bad People” and that they deserve whatever happens to them and thus whatever has been done to them they have been by definition treated justly. Whatever is done to them does not violate their rights (or, I would add, dignity) because they’re Bad People.

When we find out that a citizen has been harmed by an agent of the state, many of us assume the victim deserved it — that he could not have been a Good Person, otherwise he wouldn’t have been in a situation to get shot or choked or beaten by the cops, who are definitely Good People. Again, both our national myth and our personal stature depend on this assumption. We grasp for justifications, and the media obliges by releasing criminal records and menacing photographs — neither of which tend to have much to do with the incident in question. And thus we are relieved: He was a Bad Person, so we need not fret over him. He, like the terrorist in a Bulgarian cell, has had his humanity voided.

The article is an example of the trend I described a couple of weeks ago in questioning what just a few years ago would have been among conservatives an almost automatic deference to the agents of the state, especially the police but also the CIA. The CIA has acted dubiously enough over the years that even conservatives were rarely completely trusting of the agency, but still, most public conservatives were quick to defend the agency from criticism. Now, not so much.

Brandon goes on to explain the dilemma this poses for conservatives by putting into conflict two fundamental commitments. He closes with a warning about the possible effects of this way of treating “Bad People”: that the definition of A Bad Person will expand to include some of those who were happy when the Bad People were poor, black, latino, Muslim, citizens of a Middle Eastern country, or otherwise culturally and economically marginal. (He doesn’t mention them, but poor rural whites are a group our elites think of as Bad People, especially if they hunt or homeschool.) “Who’s next?” he asks.

This is the uncomfortable question. For now, there’s an implicit line at “potentially physically dangerous.” How quickly that transforms to “economically dangerous” or “politically dangerous” is anybody’s guess. Justice Scalia’s jab in Windsor v. U.S. that the court had labeled social conservatives “hostes humani generis,” or “enemies of mankind,” should give that faction pause before endorsing too strenuously the moral authority of our government. But culture is fickle, and the HHG appellation may travel fast.

To your door, even.

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