Protesters rallying against a grand jury's decision not to indict...

Protesters rallying against a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner chant before staging a "die-in" at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Manhattan. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Last week, even as protests against police violence rattled America's cities, the nation was also shaken by disturbing revelations on another issue: the torture of detainees in the war on terror, devastatingly detailed in the U.S. Senate intelligence committee report.

On the surface, these two stories have little in common. But both force us to confront painful questions with no easy answers. What happens when the people we collectively charge with keeping us safe abuse the power we give them? How do we keep our commitment to human rights in a world where criminals and terrorists have no respect for that notion? How do we confront our wrongs without paralyzing our ability to protect ourselves?

The social contract of a civilized society is that, except for emergencies of direct self-defense, we citizens delegate the use of force to the state; the state, in turn, assigns this task to police officers, intelligence agents and soldiers. This prerogative is a burden at least as much as a privilege.

In modern civilization where most of us are generally insulated from serious violence, these men and women have the unenviable job of dealing with the ugly and dangerous side of life on a regular basis -- often risking their lives. They have to make judgments with life-or-death consequences for themselves and for others.

Mindful of this burden, we are often inclined to give these agents of authority the benefit of the doubt when they stand accused of misusing their power. If a police officer uses deadly force under questionable circumstances, many of us feel we're in no position to judge: We don't have to face criminals or dangerously unstable people in the streets. (And even if the officer is clearly in the wrong, we can sympathize with the job pressures and stresses that can lead to a fatal mistake.) If intelligence agencies use extreme methods to extract information from terror suspects, many of us feel that extreme measures are permissible when we are the targets of a war.

But justifying such abuses is the slipperiest of all slopes -- and conservatives, inclined to be suspicious of government power, should be aware of that more than anyone else. Giving people in a particular occupation license to use force virtually guarantees that such jobs will attract not only conscientious public servants, but a certain number of petty tyrants who enjoy bullying or even hurting other people. Worse yet, even good and decent people permitted to use extreme violence against "the bad guys" -- be they ordinary criminals or terrorists -- can come to see it not only as a practical necessity but as well-deserved punishment.

The paradox is that, in the real world, violence does remain necessary. No one has yet found neat and tidy ways to address crime and terror. What is new is not that shocking things are done in our name, but that, thanks to the new ubiquity of the media -- and to a greater appreciation for human rights -- we are far more aware of them. While we did not use torture during World War II, many of our military's actions toward the enemy (such as the bombing of Dresden, with a devastating civilian toll) would have been unlikely to withstand modern levels of moral scrutiny.

Right now, we are facing clear instances of unjustifiable force: the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island in an apparent police chokehold; sickening accounts of physically abusive CIA interrogations, sometimes of suspects who turned out to be innocent of any wrongdoing. One hopes that we will muster the political will to ensure that such abuses do not happen again. But the question of how to balance safety and principle will always be with us.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

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