Historians for habeas corpus

The American Historical Association are debating a resolution opposing the Iraq War, on the grounds that it involves practices ‘inimical to the values of the historical profession’ (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19930). Specifically they argue:

the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 reaffirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

…the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:

* excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
* condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
* reclassifying previously unclassified government documents;
* suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
* using interrogation techniques at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

…a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperilled by the practices described above

My question is, concentrating on the final two issues raised: do the suspension of habeas corpus and torturing people imperil historical research? They’re certainly bad things to do, and harm society generally. But do they harm historical research and if so, how? You could argue that historians might get imprisoned indefinitely or tortured, but I see no reason to suppose that they are particularly liable to such treatment. And, in fact, lots of historians in classical times and ever since have managed to produce good historical work in countries which allowed torture and arbitrary imprisonment.

The problem for the hundreds of US historians who have signed this statement is that if you take away the final two issues, the three you have left are irritating actions by the US government, but not major threats to the historical profession. There are other democracies also interfering blatantly in historians’ work: see e.g. this article on the Indian historian Romila Thapar (http://www.himalmag.com/2003/june/analysis_2.htm). If historians want to protest the Iraq war and Bush’s policies (as most of the ones I know in Britain do), that is perfectly reasonable. But to claim that such policies are unacceptable to historians as historians seems to me a specious argument.


One thought on “Historians for habeas corpus

  1. Do the last two points represent a threat to the historical profession? No.

    Do they perhaps, just possibly, give historians who are appalled by US foreign policy another shot at reaching the attention of our apparently unreachable president? Just possibly.

    Your intellectual point is right, but the political situation here in the States sometimes feels so dire that I can sympathize with those who are tempted to ignore that point in the hopes of doing anything they can to amplify their seemingly unheard voices. However, since I let my AHA membership lapse, so – perhaps fortunately – I don’t have to decide which way my conscience might lead me to vote

    As for the three other points, I concede that the first two are more annoyances than threats to the profession. But I suspect that the recent policy of reclassification of government documents – reversing a decade(?)-long trend, hard-fought for by the profession, toward greater openness – is more serious. If allowed to continue unchallenged, it could undermine any effort by historians to make sense of the no-longer-quite-so-recent past, and allow governments to cover up their blunders in near-perpetuity.

    In that sense, I support the AHA decrying it. On its own, of course, such a protest wouldn’t make that big a splash.


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