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Bagram prison, Afghanistan

Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt by Julie Zhuo tells about the kind of behavior we observe on the internet when people act in the dark. When Nicole Catsouras died in a car crash in 2006, someone sent a picture of her badly disfigured body to her parents with the subject line, “Daddy, I’m Still Alive.” Other rats joined in. Plato’s parable about the ring of Gyges, Zhuo writes, has it right. The parable suggests that anonymity gives people license to act immorally:

That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught. Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly.

Acting in secret, under the cloak of invisibility, becomes a key goal for people who don’t want to be caught. People see the results of your actions, but they don’t see you. A hit and run driver may kill someone, but no one knows who did it. Anonymous posts may push a person to suicide. Racists burn down a church at night to avoid what daylight would reveal. Government agencies build secret prisons so others can’t see what they do there. In every case, people who commit crimes do not have to account for what they’ve done.

That’s why openness is an elemental feature of good behavior, in government and out. Daniel Ellsburg is correct when he states that Wikileaks’ disclosure of government’s secrets must have good effects. During the last ten years, people acting in our name felt they could torture people, kidnap them and transport them to secret prisons, waterboard them and beat them to death, because it didn’t think anyone would find out about it. We’ve all observed the short time horizon, willingness to go along, and resolute ignorance of their own conscience in individuals who act immorally. “You tell me this dirty business will come out in the news two years from now? I doubt it. Besides, I’m acting under orders and I have a job to do. Stand aside.”

Every citizen should regard every public servant as his or her personal representative. When a CIA man plans to strap someone to a waterboard, he should post it at the CIA’s website, www.torture.gov: Waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed until he talks. Then we can all check to see who we plan to torture that day:

Time: 10:00 – 10:30 AM, December 1, 2010
Location: Room 3C – Rayburn Office Building
Subject: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Agenda: Interrogation, torture
Method: Waterboard, other EIT as required
Interrogator: T. L. Bush, GS-15

Note: Open to the public

Let’s also put the preamble to the Constitution at the head of the waterboard, to remind the interrogator and the prisoner that we the people paid for the board and the straps. We the people sanction this act. We the people want you to suffer.

That’s the astonishing thing about a democracy: citizens actually take responsibility for what their government does. Either we’re not a democracy any longer, or we could be the first democratic republic in history to torture people systematically. Take your pick. Theocrats, autocrats, and tyrants don’t make any apologies about torture. You have to give the medieval church’s inquisitors this much: they burned their heretics in public. The inquisitors wanted others to hear their victims’ screams as they died. To intimidate people, you have to tolerate a certain amount of public suffering. But then, the inquisitors didn’t pretend to be democrats.

Don’t believe all the reasons government officials give to justify their secret actions. Our representatives in government aren’t different from the rest of us. They can’t claim special privileges, exemptions, or rights to privacy on the presumption that these things are necessary to accomplish their work. If they can’t accomplish the work in public, they should not undertake it. Only one exception exists: real time military information about troop movements, battle plans and the like.

We all swim in the same ocean. Most of us work in cubicles, where we can’t make a phone call without being overheard. We deal with issues of privacy on the internet, off the internet, in our families, with our friends, where we work, and in our public affairs. People in government, from the president on down, serve under the same constraints. For public servants in a democracy, our default assumption is that information must be open, not confidential. In the national security state, we have flipped that position: information is confidential unless you can show a good reason that it should be public.

The United States government’s whole system of classifying information is an abomination for a democracy. The practice of stamping every document with its classification originated in the military and intelligence agencies, and permeated every other part of government. “That’s classified,” became the government’s stock response for anything it didn’t want to reveal. Acting and communicating in secret became a habit. The classification system became the government’s ring of Gyges.

You can get away with a lot when you’re invisible. The government claims that to protect us, it has to act under a cloak of secrecy. Now we’ve seen what the country does for the sake of national security. It undertakes illegal wars, sets up secret prison camps, and turns prisoners over to foreign powers for torture. It  puts a leash around a beaten man’s neck to drag him around a concrete floor. It piles naked bodies into pyramids. It detains and demeans people, kidnaps them, mutilates and burns them. It waterboards them, electrocutes them, forces them to perform sexual acts before prison guards, sets dogs on them, hangs them on rings in a wall until they asphyxiate, or just shoots them. Then it claims that it’s all an aberration – Americans don’t do things like that.

We know the truth. We commit those acts. Until we remove our government’s ring of anonymity and secrecy, we will always commit them.