Worthless promises

Lawrence Davidson
Wednesday, Apr 10, 2024

In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sentient computer HAL becomes unreliable and eventually homicidal. The cause of this is a contradiction in HAL’s programming. While programmed to act on and dispense information in a straightforward and accurate fashion, HAL is simultaneously programmed to lie about the true nature of his mission. As his human supervisor puts it in the movie’s sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, HAL “was told to lie by people who find it very easy to lie.” Those people were the one’s running the US government.

This is, of course, a bit of cinema fiction. However, the sentiment described about government lying, that it is done in an all too easy manner, is accurate and prevails in the real world. Indeed, so prevalent are government’s lies that citizens have long been cynical of political speech, while political leaders consider those who, in a public way, expose their practice of official duplicity, to be criminals.

Punishing “Those Who Told”: Take the case of Julian Assange, the man who established WikiLeaks and used it to reveal the crimes of the George W Bush administration in Iraq. Assange is now in jail in Great Britain awaiting likely extradition to the US where his fate is, at best, a lifetime of incarceration. What is Assange’s crime according to the American government? He exposed its lies, its deadly misrepresentations.

One might object that Assange’s crime is also that he told “official secrets.” Yes, that is certainly true. However, these were secrets which hid war crimes – crimes which are illegal both under US and international law. So the whole “revealing secrets” accusation is flawed and can only stand as legitimate before the public if, as is likely, they conveniently ignore the war crimes side of the equation.

Now the British high court says it will allow Assange’s extradition if the US government, the same government that WikiLeaks has shown to have been habitually lying, gives assurances that Assange will not be (1) denied of his right to free speech, (2) be discriminated against because he is not a US citizen, (3) not be subjected to the death penalty.

We might legitimately ask what US assurances generally, and particularly in the case of Julian Assange, can possibly be worth? After all, those who will give these assurances will be the agents (more on this below) of an institution that has standardized official lying?

Among other things, this proposed arrangement tells us that there may be a sort of agreed upon gullibility among the higher echelon institutions of governments across the globe. After all, if I, a retired college professor, can figure out the illogic in this situation, so can the British judges. But it makes no difference. They are playing to political standards that do not care about logic, much less justice.

Nonsensical Assurances: Consider the required assurance of Assange’s “right of free speech.” Assange, not being a US citizen, has no rights under the US Constitution. Agents of the US government’s executive branch may say to the British judges, well in this case we assure that Assange will be treated like a citizen and be accorded 1st Amendment rights. This would also satisfy the second demand that the US will not bias Assange because he is a non-citizen.

However, even if these agents are sincere (which we can reasonably doubt), it doesn’t mean much because the judiciary is a separate branch of government here in the US and is not bound by any non-constitutional promises given by the executive.

Excerpted: ‘What Are US Assurances Worth?’.