By Roland Watson
January 5, 2006

Any test may yield an incorrect result: the test has inaccurately measured its subject. This failure in turn, for certain types of tests, can take two forms. Statisticians refer to these as:

1) False Negatives, where the test failed to detect a condition that is present; and
2) False Positives, where the result shows that the condition exists when it actually does not.

For example, an HIV test for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a false negative if the result says the disease is not present but it is; and a false positive if the result shows that the subject has the disease when he or she actually does not.

For good test design, it is essential to minimize to the greatest extent possible the number of false negatives and positives that occur.

A society’s legal system also embodies such tests. Law enforcement officers may falsely accuse the innocent (false positives), and fail to apprehend and successfully prosecute the guilty (false negatives). Particularly for the former, because the stakes are so high – imprisonment and social condemnation results – there must be as few mistakes as possible. The legal system should not tolerate false positives.

Above all, this holds for crimes that incur capital punishment. Absolutely no one should be executed for a crime that he or she did not commit. (There are convincing arguments against the use of capital punishment in any circumstance, but a discussion of these is outside the scope of this article. For a brief summary, please see #8 in Activism 101's description of positions on important social and environmental problems.)

The actions of the Bush Administration have undermined this basic foundation of the United States legal system. In the U.S., there is a presumption of innocence, the rationale for which is obvious. To be falsely accused is to suffer a wrong, at the hands of society, which wrong is exponentially compounded if you are subsequently convicted (for a crime that you did not commit).

For this reason, indictments are only served when there is convincing evidence of guilt. Furthermore, police officers and FBI agents can only (in theory) engage in searches and wiretaps if they disclose such evidence to a judge.

This is one of the core social systems that protects human rights, and ultimately human liberty. It has also, in the United States, effectively been discarded.

The Bush Administration has used the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to redefine these elements of the U.S. legal system. Under provisions passed into law in the Patriot Act and other legislation, and through the issuance of presidential Executive Orders, the presumption of innocence has been cast aside. False positives are now considered insignificant, and a barrier to effective law enforcement. We have been told that we must give up our freedom, not to be falsely accused, to protect our freedom. (George Orwell would applaud this marvelous example of “doublethink.”)

Under the Bush Administration, and you would have to consider Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, to be the principle architects, the United States Government has:

- (In defiance of the Geneva Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory) tortured prisoners, and also sent prisoners to other countries where torture is commonly practiced. (The latter is known as “rendition.”) Of note, torture is frequently used in political dictatorships to get individuals to confess to crimes of which they are innocent.

- “Disappeared” foreign nationals (to disappear someone is also a common practice in dictatorships), by denying habeas corpus and the right to due process (i.e., to hear the charges against you, to have access to a lawyer, and to defend yourself in a court of law). Under proposed legislation, the Administration even demanded the right to disappear American citizens. In other words, you could be falsely accused, grabbed off the street, held without end and without access to a lawyer, and tortured, and your family and friends would receive no information whatsoever about what happened to you. (The disappearance would be top secret because of “national security” interests.)

- Spied on ordinary Americans, and collected information ranging from library to communications and financial records, under a secret intelligence court warrant-based system that is not subject to an independent and public audit.

- Spied on peaceful activists, e.g., demonstrators opposed to the Iraq war.

- Spied on Americans without first obtaining any form of warrant. Under self-declared “war powers,” Bush authorized the transformation of the National Security Agency into a secret police force to spy on the American public. It is not an exaggeration to say that the first step towards establishing an American Gestapo has been taken.

To repeat, all of this has been done, supposedly, to preserve American freedom and the American way of life. This is not the American way of life. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would unequivocally oppose George Bush.

Bush proposed the doctrine of preemptive war, and then launched such a war on the basis of false (or purposely falsified) intelligence. He is now arguing that he should have preemptive law enforcement as well. The goal is clear: the Administration wants the legal right to accuse and imprison – or disappear – anyone it considers a threat, without giving in a court or to a judge convincing evidence of the commission of a crime.

This is the thinking of a tyrant. False positives are unacceptable, and not only in the legal system. The Administration presents its overall security policy as positive, for the good of the American people. This too is false. Current security policy threatens America, not defends it.

Closing note: The tragedy of all this is that it is being done in the service of an unachievable goal: an impregnable Fortress America. The U.S. is an open society, and its borders are long. We can never successfully wall the nation off. More importantly, we shouldn’t have to. The American people do not want to live in fear (including of the police).

You do need effective law enforcement, to stop real terrorists inside the United States. And you want an international effort, the U.S. acting in cooperation with other countries, to identify and capture terrorists wherever and against whomever they might be active.

But this has to be matched with another effort, at least as large, directed at the sentiment that precipitated 9/11. While again, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this article, Al Qeada, and the great support it receives from Muslim communities worldwide, did not arise out of a vacuum. Before 9/11, many Muslims hated America. The actions of the Bush Administration have inflamed this. Instead, we need to work with and make peace with Islam, and find a common ground. This will require honest self-appraisal, and change, on both sides.

This is the only way to alter the social conditions and belief systems that generate the large number of individuals who are willing, if not eager, to volunteer for suicide missions. And like kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers will penetrate any defense. To end terror attacks, then, our strategy must concentrate on cutting off the supply of people who are willing to be terrorists.

Bush actually took the easy way out. Accomplishing the required cultural change is much more difficult that declaring and conducting a war, even a war without end.

© Roland O. Watson 2006