, , , , ,

Government’s legitimacy depends upon faith in its good intentions. If government’s intentions are bad, and we citizens know they are bad, we want to think about actions to take as a result. A lot of people – partly out of habit, I believe – still consider the government legitimate. Therefore efforts expended to explain why it does not deserve our allegiance or faith is energy well spent. Yet we haven’t considered what it means to have an illegitimate government. We haven’t thought about what illegitimacy implies.

An American soldier patrolling outside Abu Ghraib prison in 2005. Images of prisoners abused there prompted debate about the way the United States treats prisoners.

Government’s willingness to practice torture indicates its intentions are bad. Several implications come to mind:

  • Our government does not rest on the Constitution that founded it. It is lawless.
  • Being lawless, our government does not have authority to enforce laws.
  • Our government has become an arbitrary power in our midst. It serves not the citizens who made it, but itself. Government’s emphasis on secrecy and surveillance demonstrates its self-serving nature.
  • Our goverment’s monopoly on the use of force makes it the people’s enemy, not a guarantor of people’s security.
  • Our goverment cannot represent us to the rest of the world.

To sum up, an illegitimate government has the qualities we associate with tyranny. We should not shrink from the word tyranny, or the concept, any more than we ought to shrink from recognition of the cruelty that made our government illegitimate. Any institution that tortures people sets aside its legitimate authority. Any government that tortures people is a tyranny. Its power rests only on force and nothing else. A government’s willful use of torture to achieve its ends makes it tyrannical and illegitimate. It does not have to do anything else.

Jefferson appended a long list of Britain’s abuses to the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. He argued that these abuses justified the colonies in their fight for independence. When citizens in the twenty-first century come to recognize that they have lost their republic, and their independence along with it, they can write a shorter declaration. When asked to state why they ought to replace their government, they need reply with one word only: torture. When asked to explain their apparently radical stand that the United States government has become a tyranny, citizens can respond with a single indictment: you are torturers. Government itself has defended its right to torture people.

The indictment and government’s response to it speak for themselves.

Related question

Do you believe a connection exists between treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and treatment of Freddie Gray?

Related article

American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says