Human Dignity: Rhetoric and Reality

 /  Feb. 15, 2015, 2:51 p.m.


Americans, and especially American presidents, like to define themselves by their commitment to human dignity. In his 1966 State of the Union, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that  “the people of Vietnam, North and South, [share] the desire to walk in the dignity of those who master their own destiny.” It was a powerful, poetic line, delivered twenty-six months before American soldiers from the 23rd Infantry Division massacred hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in the most brutal episode of an appallingly violent war. Two years later, in the 1968 State of the Union, Richard Nixon railed against the welfare system’s “demeaning, soul-stifling affronts to human dignity,” before proposing a plan the next year that liberals rejected for requiring virtually every welfare recipient to work and for providing inadequate levels of assistance to the poor. President George W. Bush cited human dignity in 2003, when he told Congress and millions of Americans that “the qualities of courage and compassion that we strive for in America also determine our conduct abroad…Our Founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity.” At the time, the Iraq War was in its early stages, and even those who believe that one of the Bush administration’s intentions in entering Iraq was to preserve human dignity now surely agree that the United States failed time and again throughout the war to live up to those standards.

In last month’s State of the Union President Obama once again reaffirmed America’s commitment to human dignity , as he did in the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014 editions. “As Americans,” he proclaimed, “we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened…We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, emphasized the Obama administration’s special emphasis on human dignity at a liberal think tank’s policy conference in November. “I think President Obama has really urged us to inject concern for human dignity in our policymaking,” she said, “whether that’s being hugely generous in the face of ethnic violence in South Sudan, or in the face of the horrible displacement out of Syria, or wanting to close Guantanamo.”

These rhetorical salvoes come at a time when the US is under fire from all sides for affronts to human dignity at home and abroad. As the Huffington Post pointed out, Power’s remarks came even as the administration was scrambling to prevent the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, better known as the CIA torture report. The shocking report reveals the CIA’s use of six “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, prolonged sleep deprivation (for as much as 180 hours in at least one case), and confinement in a cold cell (treatment that apparently killed at least one prisoner). Intelligence officers also physically and verbally abused prisoners—many of whom were later shown to be innocent—threatened them with power drills and subjected them to rectal feeding and hydration. Critics hastened to point out the gulf between America’s lofty human dignity rhetoric and its inhuman treatment of its enemies. “The United States has no right to pose itself as an arbiter and at every turn point their finger at other countries’ human rights, as racism and mistreatment of prisoners and other serious human rights violation problems in the United States are facts now known to all,” declared a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman two days after the report was released.

The Chinese communiqué responded specifically to the torture revelations, but also referenced racism, doubtless in response to the agony of American race relations in the past six months. The crises of the American criminal justice system in these past months are indeed now known to all. During that time, police officers killed a series of unarmed black men, one a twelve-year-old; courts acquitted or in several cases refused to even indict the officers involved; and local police used brutal tactics on demonstrators protesting these events, especially in Ferguson, Missouri, where a militarized police force employed tear gas and rubber bullets. The irony of these events wasn't lost on countries the US has called out for police brutality in the past. China, whose abuse of ethnic minorities has been condemned by the United States, finds itself on that list alongside Egypt, which the United States has criticized for crackdowns on protesters in Tahrir Square.

The US has also been strident in its defense of freedom of the press (President Obama’s much-criticized absence from the Charlie Hebdo march notwithstanding), notably in Turkey, whose ostensibly liberal government serially arrests journalists that it finds threatening. Regrettably, however, Ferguson police arrested twenty-four journalists over several months of protests, including, in a truly glorious irony, the Turkish reporter Bilgin Sasmaz. And of course, it’s now certain that that the NSA, among other dodgy activities, is in fact targeting journalists for surveillance.

If you were out to paint the worst possible picture of the US record on human dignity, you would add that the US maintains strong relationships with repressive allies—see President Obama’s “genuine and warm friendship” with a Saudi king whose country prohibits women from driving. Guantanamo Bay is still open despite Obama’s pledge in the 2014 State of the Union to close it within the year, and the US is currently taking no active role as Boko Haram massacres Nigerians, IS massacres Iraqis, and all the parties in the Syrian war massacre each other.

Proponents of moral diplomacy will continue to criticize the US for staying out of deadly conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and now Nigeria, where Boko Haram grows more menacing by the day. There is an argument to be made that the US’s position as global hegemon carries with it the responsibility to intervene in all such humanitarian disasters. However, many in America and around the world strenuously disagree , and it’s hard to imagine the US putting boots on the ground in any of those countries.

The president addressed NSA reform in the State of the Union, but only to give the public an ambiguous assurance that the new NSA will respect privacy more while still “keeping our promise to keep our country safe.” In other words, real reform, if it comes, will be slow and hard to discern. We can be certain that if Edward Snowden had not revealed so many of the agency’s questionable practices, its routine violations of Americans’ rights would have continued unabated. As it is, they are unlikely to end completely.

Obama issued a similar assurance on drones in the address, noting that he has “worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.” He made a similar remark in the 2014 address, and his use of the past tense in both speeches is suggestive: the administration’s policy on drones is set. If this policy on drones constitutes a human rights violation, as many believe it does, that human rights violation will continue for the foreseeable future.

On police militarization—a problem that has attracted attention from nearly every party on the political spectrum, from liberal Claire McCaskill to libertarian Rand Paul to actual conservative Ross Douthat—the administration remains ambivalent about reform, and the now-notorious Section 1033 program, which provides excess military gear to local police, will not be discontinued. However, the program may get more oversight as part of a general initiative to improve community policing. The president and select allies in local government are clearly serious about making sure officers stop killing unarmed black men (or anyone else), but the specifics of the problem remain under discussion. We will likely see some sort of body camera initiative, but as Eric Garner’s case demonstrated, video of the crime solves neither police violence nor jury bias.

Ultimately the fact remains that our country is still very bad at race relations. This article isn’t the place to discuss that issue in detail—see Mickey Desruisseaux’s excellent piece in these pages for a more comprehensive examination of the problem—but the way our police, courts, and prisons treat people of color today is nothing less than a human rights disaster. Unfortunately, unlike institutional racism in China, where the central government could decide to stop persecuting the Uighurs tomorrow, institutional racism in the US is as silent as it is pervasive, and one piece of legislation won’t be enough to fix it. In the State of the Union address, the president called for “Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.” But if and when that happens, it will be at the end of a long road of legal and cultural change.

Still, the US appears to be dedicated to improving on some of these issues. Although the White House tried to stop the torture report from being released, presumably for security reasons, the president did act decisively upon taking office to end the CIA’s torture program. And future administrations will probably feel pressure not to go back after the massive public outcry that followed revelations about the program under the Bush administration.

Obama renewed his commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay in this year’s State of the Union, and no one is feeling especially enthusiastic about the base at the moment, so the administration should be able to follow last year’s downsizing efforts with a decisive closure before the president leaves office. At this point, Guantanamo has only marginal military benefits and continues to be a public relations disaster—“a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies,” as President George W. Bush remarked in 2005.

The US will likely keep enabling repressive allies; it’s an American tradition. Nonetheless, the president has evidently been pushing the House of Saud, some of the most notorious US-backed authoritarians, to improve their human rights record. Such efforts, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, will assuredly be slow and cautious, and defenders of the administration’s policy can point to the chaos that followed the collapse of various Middle Eastern dictatorships as evidence that discretion in these cases is the better part of valor.

US efforts to preserve human dignity at home and abroad leave much to be desired. The president’s guarded rhetoric about the NSA, drones, and police brutality make it abundantly clear that dignity is not a top priority for this administration. As has always been the case, America is happy to tread on human rights at a moment’s notice if doing so will safeguard its security interests. But in the information age, when human rights violations make the front page of newspapers around the world and spawn angry hashtag campaigns, offenses against human dignity can have heavy costs for the governments that commit them. Although the administration evidently feels that negative PR from drone warfare and NSA spying are worth those programs’ military benefits, it has a strong incentive to be restrained in its use of abusive tactics. Now more than ever it is in the United States’ interest to respect its own citizens, particularly women and ethnic minorities, and the citizens of other nations, because a deeply suspicious world is watching our every move.


Malloy Owen

Malloy Owen is a fourth-year in Fundamentals and philosophy. He wrote his Fundamentals junior paper on the political theology of Plato’s Laws and is currently working on a BA essay on Kierkegaardian self-legislation. He has interned at The American Conservative magazine and spent last summer teaching high school students in the Great Books Summer Program at Stanford University. On campus, he is the publicity chair of UChicago Students for Life.


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