No Comment — May 26, 2009, 3:54 pm

From the Department of Pre-Crime

I’m just back after spending ten days in Italy, recharging and also meeting with European counterterrorism experts, judges, and prosecutors, and joining with many of them in an effort to assess where the Obama Administration is taking us. In the midst of my meetings there, Barack Obama delivered a major speech on the issue at the National Archives. The speech consisted of lofty rhetoric that was surprisingly short on details, which makes me hesitant to express a final judgment. Still, one of the European judges I met with put the question very well. “Every government is necessarily a prisoner of the past, and specifically of the government that preceded it,” he said. “The real question here is whether Obama is more of a prisoner of the Bush years than he needs to be.”

This clip from the Rachel Maddow Show does a brilliant job of surveying the issues that the Obama speech opened. The references to Philip K. Dick’s short story “Minority Report” are right on point, because they go to the key problem: the claim of a government to be omniscient, to know not merely who is guilty of a crime but also who is inclined to commit a crime in the future. It is critical to the peace and security of our society that we have a watchful government, working hard to identify violent and criminal elements. The development and steady proliferation of technologies of devastation makes this concern increasingly acute. But government must be restrained by the knowledge that it is not omniscient, that it makes mistakes particularly when it purports to be all-knowing, and that justice is our most fundamental value. Obama’s proposals on “prolonged detention” will be worth a careful hearing when they are finally presented with any measure of specificity. But they should also be confronted with healthy skepticism and an insistence that they be checked against the Constitution and the laws and values that define America. Here’s Maddow’s take, which hits these points just right:

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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