Sunday, June 26, 2005

U.S. exceptionalism

If you think about it, this is just amazing:

"The extraordinary decision by an Italian judge to order the arrest of 13 people linked to the Central Intelligence Agency on charges of kidnapping a terrorism suspect here dramatizes a growing rift between American counterterrorism officials and their counterparts in Europe. European counterterrorism officials have pursued a policy of building criminal cases against terrorism suspects through surveillance, wire-taps, detective work and the criminal justice system. The United States, however, has frequently used other means since Sept. 11, 2001, including renditions - abducting terror suspects from foreign countries and transporting them for questioning to third countries, some of which are known to use torture."

The fact that the United States, under the GW Bush Administration, should stand for lawlessness and torture, and against the rule of law that European countries continue to defend, is no small thing. While our foreign policy has, in the past 60 years, included such episodes as CIA assassinations, the Phoenix program in South Vietnam, participation in coups eliminating elected governments, etc., this is a step beyond in a certain sense. We are substituting kidnapping and torture for the rule of law where both are available options, and treating European allies as if they were not legitimate sovereigns whom we need to respect. And I will stick to my comment in an earlier post that, for the Bush Administration, torturing foreign suspects (including innocent ones accidentally included in some broader sweep) is not just a case of the ends justifying the means; to a considerable extent the torture is the end (otherwise why be so indifferent to possible innocence, lack of intelligence value, etc.?)

In terms of why this sort of U.S.-European divergence is taking place, well obviously 9/11 happened here. I was certainly up for torture of al Qaeda people in the days after I witnessed (from a mile away) the WTC attack. And also there is the old argument about the extent of American exceptionalism, sometimes given a positive spin about our leaving Europe behind but also capable of a negative spin that emphasizes the ugly side of American religious fundamentalism.

But a political science-type explanation about institutional structure might have a lot to say as well. I recently heard a talk by a colleague who is in the early stages of a sociological study concerning another recent instance of American exceptionalism - the political rise of the death penalty here, in contrast to its abolition in Europe. The history of the death penalty in the two places is, I gather, pretty much parallel through the point in the late 60s and early 70s when it became a "social issue" here - at first linked to law and order concerns and perhaps, on a symbolic level, the broader social unrest of the era. Now, of course, the death penalty is part of the Jeb Bush-style "culture of life" (save the unborn and brain-dead; kill, torture, and persecute the living).

Why did the death penalty disappear in Europe, however? Apparently public opinion there was as opposed to its abolition as it was here. The difference was that the political elites imposed it on the public there, and none of the competing political forces decided to use it as a wedge issue against the others. In other words, cartelization of the policy process by the elite resulted in forcing an unpopular policy change on the western European countries. (Whether this was good or not depends on what you think about the death penalty and about policymaking more generally. I am just trying to be descriptive here.) In the US, by contrast, while a portion of the political elite wanted to do this, others seized on the issue and forced the retention of the death penalty through democratic politics. At conferences where US and European criminal law types who opposed the death penalty would meet, apparently the latter would tell the former: "Your country is too democratic - that's why you can't do the right thing on this issue.")

If political institutions are the key here, what comes to mind is the difference between parliamentary systems and the US approach, including not just the separate Presidency but primaries, lack of top-down selection of candidates, etc.

Depending on what you think about particular policies, it's possible that the US institutional design is better on some issues and the European design better on others. Going back to the Framers, both too little responsiveness and too much can be a problem.

This post is long enough already, so I will save for a subsequent post my political economy explanation of why US politics has gone so far astray in the last few years. The cause I have in mind is actually unrelated to all this.

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