The Fundamental Problem

The fundamental problem, or at least the pragmatic problem, with using torture and abrogating civil rights is that the government can never be sure it is torturing the right person, or abrogating the civil rights of the right person. In cases where the government has sufficient evidence to be certain it has the right person, there’s no need for extreme measures — due process will work fine. When the government lacks such evidence, there’s no way to be sure it’s targeting the right person.

Witness today’s news that the charges against Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer and Muslim convert who once represented one of the “Portland Seven” in a custody case, were thrown out. Fortunately, due process is down but not out. After being held for two weeks as a material witness, Mayfield was freed.

The FBI does deserve some credit for issuing an apology, though it appears they are perhaps being less than forthcoming. Their story is that it was a purely random finger print mismatch that lead them to pick up Mayfield, who attends the same Mosque as the Portland Seven. Since the FBI’s database has about 40 million fingerprints, the odds of that happening are roughly 0.000000025.(*)

I think I have to side with Belle Waring’s very perspicacious mother.


(*) Of course, the odds of any given match from the IAFIS database are 0.000000025; still, it seems more likely that Mayfield was culled from a much shorter list.