Editor's note: Our last issue (December/January 1993-94) featured
a series of articles "On Intervention" by Noam Chomsky, Christopher
Hitchens, Richard Falk, Diane Orentlicher, and Carl Conetta, Charles Knight,
and Robert Leavitt. Here we extend the discussion with responses from Thomas
Harrison and Thomas G. Weiss.
The left's response to the destruction of Bosnia, its failure to rally in support
of Bosnia's fight against aggression and genocide, has been shameful. I share
Christopher Hitchens's anger over this failure, but to ascribe it to a kind
of knee-jerk anti-interventionism is, I think, very wide of the mark indeed.
On the contrary, there is growing sympathy on the left for intervention, and
Hitchens's article is an example of this unfortunate phenomenon. Hitchens rightly
deplores the fact that "no serious march or rally expressed any solidarity
with the Bosnian cause." (The Campaign for Peace and Democracy has organized
several demonstrations and public forums with precisely this theme, but they
have been small.) There has been plenty of compassion for the sufferings of
the Bosnian people, of course, but little interest in supporting the Bosnians'
war of self defense. So the problem is that liberals and radicals decline politically
to give this sort of solidarity, not that they fear solidarity might be misconstrued
as a demand for intervention, as Hitchens oddly claims. Along with the mainstream
press and the Bush and Clinton administrations, they have treated the conflict
in Bosnia as a tribal civil war. This is the reason the call for lifting the
arms embargo against Bosnia "stayed on the fringes of debate" -- not
because demanding that Bosnia be allowed to defend itself "seemed to call
upon the US government to act in some sense as a morally confident agent."
After all, the reasoning goes, if it's just a bunch of mad tribes slaughtering
one another, why help one more tribe to arm itself?
While the liberal and radical press have exhibited little sense of solidarity
with the actual struggle of Bosnia against Serb and Croat aggression, they have
been full of proposals for various forms of intervention, by Clinton or the
UN, all of which are quite explicitly counterposed to the idea of lifting the
arms embargo so that the Bosnian government and armed forces might have a chance
of defeating the aggressors and rebuilding a multicultural society themselves.
From the beginning of the war, the reigning assumption has been that Bosnians
are, like all Balkan and perhaps all Eastern European peoples, basically incompetent.
Their only hope lies in some sort of neo-colonial trusteeship or protectorate,
under whose benevolent auspices they will receive instruction in the mysteries
of self-government, democracy, and civilized behavior. In short, most progressives
in this country, far from being paralyzed by a fear of somehow legitimizing
intervention, are all too willing to believe that the US government and other
western states, while not the ideal "moral agents" perhaps, are certainly
preferable to the people on the ground.
Hitchens notes that there have been much more insistent and explicit calls for
intervention from the European left. To call these demands "an echo of
the great international campaign to defend the Spanish Republic between 1936
and 1939," however, is a bit misleading. It is of course true that "non-intervention"
was the slogan under which British and French (and American) realpolitik allowed
unhindered intervention by German and Italian fascism. But, to my knowledge,
no one on the left advocated sending French and British troops to "save"
Spain. Every radical in his or her right mind knew that the gentlemen who ruled
those states could under no circumstances be entrusted with the job of defending
Spanish democracy, since they were busily strangling the republican cause with
their arms embargo (against "both sides," to be sure), thus deliberately
interfering with the efforts of the Spanish people to win their freedom -- this
was what the international left was trying to stop.
Today, in contrast, there is perhaps a little more sympathy in Europe for lifting
the arms embargo against Bosnia than there is in this country, but not much.
Instead, there is on the European left, and also among American progressives,
a growing tendency to look toward great power "collective security,"
even through NATO, as a substitute for popular struggles. Whether in Bosnia,
Somalia, or Haiti, the indigenous populations are quickly written off as incapable
of achieving their own liberation. Through a process of circular reasoning,
the handicaps that have been imposed on their struggles by imperial interference
(Bosnia's military weakness due to the arms embargo, the Haitian people's helplessness
in the face of the American-trained police and armed forces) are cited as the
very reasons why only these self-same imperial powers can bring peace
and human rights. The trouble is, they can't and they won't.
In Bosnia, the interventions that the United States and the other western powers
have so far undertaken -- the arms embargo and the "peace talks" --
have been completely counterproductive. They have simply helped Serbian and
Croatian aggression, because their purpose has been to bring about Bosnia's
surrender as quickly as possible. If there is any hope for Bosnia, it lies in
stopping these cruel interventions, not calling for new ones.
Associate Director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (The Campaign has
not taken a position on intervention in Bosnia.)
The search for order may be no less quixotic now than in the past as the struggle
for decolonization and self-determination give way to ethnic, religious, and
political fragmentation. Yet in light of genocide and the massive abuse of human
rights in war zones around the world, should Pontius Pilate be the model for
both the American and the international response? The fatalism and isolationism
that flow from "On Intervention" are as distressing as the political
situation that the essays describe. Noam Chomsky's sound-bites and invectives
about Washington's historically evil foreign policy are easy enough to ignore.
But similar conclusions also emanate from Dick Falk's contention that it is
"nearly impossible to carry an intervention to political completion"
in light of "the limits of military power in the post-colonial world."
Presumably most readers will respond negatively to Conetta/Knight/Leavitt's
rhetorical question, "Free Reign for the Sole Superpower?"
In contrast, Christopher Hitchens at least leaves open the possibility of US
military action in support of legitimate humanitarian objectives, concluding
that a purely non-interventionist position amounts to abstention from the foreign
policy debate. And Diane Orentlicher's is the solitary voice in the wilderness
calling for the United States to "provide clear-sighted leadership in defining
appropriate occasions for humanitarian intervention -- notably including situations
of genocide -- as well as situations warranting restraint."
Both supporters and critics of outside intervention must clarify the meaning
of "intervention" and propose ways to ensure more congruence between
Washington's decisions and humane values. Intervention is loosely and commonly
understood as a spectrum of possible actions intended to alter internal affairs
elsewhere and ranging from telephone calls to the dispatch of troops. However
the term "intervention" should be reserved for economic and military
sanctions authorized by Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Whatever one's views about the fairness of the preponderant role (some would
say "leadership") for the permanent members of the Security Council,
UN decision-making is the only available and sensible way to control unilateral
intervention. While it is inevitable that major powers exercise their authority,
it is not inevitable that they should subject themselves to some standard of
international law and oversight.
Whether or not observers would prefer a different constitution for the world
organization, a decision is legitimate when the Security Council authorizes
coercion against governments and insurgents that resist the expressed international
will. While many lament the absence of an independent UN military, the reality
of the present military balance means that there can be no effective international
enforcement for the forseeable future without a dominant American role.
Political pressures now point to what most of the contributors to "On Intervention"
seem to prefer, namely paring back the US military and stopping those UN military
efforts intended to alleviate suffering. But what is the alternative to international
intervention in order to halt atrocities in Bosnia, give civil society a chance
to take root in Somalia, or restore an elected government in Port-au-Prince?
In the future, preventive measures could forestall the spread of chaos. But
here too, the military would be essential. In the long term, economic and social
development may mitigate conflict; but effective prevention today and tomorrow
would necessarily entail the physical deployment of well-armed troops. These
soldiers would require contingency plans and reserve firepower for immediate
retaliation, amounting to an advance authorization for Chapter VII.
The disasters looming behind ethnic conflict in much of the Third World and
the former Soviet Union should catalyze clearer thinking on intervention than
we have read.
Thomas G. Weiss
Editor's note: Vivian Rothstein's "Is There
a Right to be Homeless?" (Boston Review, December/January
1993-94, and reprinted as an Op-Ed article in The Los Angeles Times and
The New York Times) elicited a number of letters from our readers. Here,
Harry Simon, Benjamin S.Waxman, Mark H. Sidran, and David Wagner respond to
In cities throughout America -- San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Santa
Monica, Portland, and San Diego -- homeless individuals face arrest and incarceration
for weeks or even months for sleeping, using sleeping bags and blankets, possessing
property, or merely remaining in public spaces within our cities. R.D., a homeless
resident of Atlanta, summarized the situation this way: "I know we don't
wear the best of clothes. I know that we don't smell like the best of people.
But we're still human. So why should we be arrested? Might as well just go ahead
and throw us in the dog pound and lock the gate. Give us an extra two legs to
walk around on, and put a collar around our neck." Last November, a federal
district court judge declared illegal Miami's efforts to drive homeless persons
from that city. In Pottinger v. City of Miami, Judge C. Clyde Atkins
of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued
a decision preventing the City of Miami from arresting and jailing homeless
individuals for sleeping in public spaces in that city.
In reaching his decision, Judge Atkins recognized that the unavailability of
low-income housing or alternative shelter to homeless persons means that they
often "have no choice but to conduct involuntary, life-sustaining activities
in public spaces. The harmless conduct for which they are arrested is inseparable
from their involuntary condition of being homeless. Consequently, arresting
homeless people for harmless acts they are forced to perform in public effectively
punishes them for being homeless." Judge Atkins concluded that arresting
and jailing homeless individuals for sleeping, sitting, or eating in public
is cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the United States Constitution.
And he required Miami to set aside certain "safe zones" where homeless
persons could exist in public areas free from arrest as a result of their homeless
I was saddened to read Vivian Rothstein's article in which she labeled Judge
Atkins's decision "a crushing defeat for human rights." Judge Atkins
has rightly been criticized for the novel remedy he fashioned. The idea of creating
"homeless zones" has been rejected by advocates for cities and homeless
persons alike. But his basic conclusion is unassailable. It is wrong to arrest
and jail homeless persons for eating, sleeping, or simply remaining on public
land -- for harmless conduct they are compelled to pursue in public places.
Moreover, the Pottinger decision has had positive results for Miami's
homeless population. Because city officials and the homeless plaintiffs found
the safe zones proposed by Judge Atkins unacceptable, the City of Miami has
now stopped arresting homeless persons for sleeping in public areas.
In addition, Pottinger has prompted the City of Miami to raise funds
to aid its homeless population, a step the city had previously resisted. Soon
after Judge Atkins issued his decision, the City of Miami began imposing a half-cent
meal tax designed to raise several million dollars for the construction of shelters
for the homeless.
Ms. Rothstein sees Judge Atkins's decision as "institutionaliz[ing] homelessness
by permitting large numbers of people to live in sanctioned sub-standard conditions
in the midst of our cities." As an attorney representing homeless persons
in Santa Ana, California, I see things somewhat differently.
Earlier this year, I interviewed dozens of homeless persons cited under Santa
Ana's anti-camping ordinance. These individuals face possible jail time for
covering themselves with blankets and sleeping bags in public spaces. In defending
people charged with such "crimes," I haven't sought to create a "right
to be homeless." I am simply trying to assure that homeless individuals
don't spend weeks or months in jail simply because they are homeless.
What would Ms. Rothstein ask me to do? Surely, I should not sit by passively
while Santa Ana harasses and jails homeless persons for sleeping, possessing
property, or merely remaining in public areas within the city. Santa Ana city
officials have no right to "solve" the social problems they associate
with homelessness by driving homeless residents of Santa Ana -- some of whom
have lived here for decades -- to surrounding cities.
In defending Santa Ana's efforts to drive out its homeless population, the Orange
County District Attorney recently cited a Los Angeles Times article by
Ms. Rothstein (excerpted from her article in the Boston Review) for the
proposition that "those who attempt to impede government efforts to keep
the homeless from lodging in public areas are the ones who condemn the homeless
to a life of despair."
Orange County has the second highest housing costs in the nation. California
is suffering from a severe economic recession. Homeless adults are eligible
for only $108 in general assistance benefits and there is a four year waiting
list for available public housing in Orange County. The City of Santa Ana has
approximately 3,000 homeless individuals and 332 available shelter beds. Not
surprisingly, shelter providers in Santa Ana turn homeless persons away on a
daily basis. They are subject to incarceration for unlawfully lodging in public
areas. Where would Ms. Rothstein suggest that these homeless individuals go?
Until someone can answer that question, I will continue to fight city officials
who seek to arrest and jail homeless persons for living in public areas. Court
decisions that strike down such laws merely acknowledge that it is wrong for
cities to criminalize homelessness. To characterize these decisions as a "crushing
defeat for human rights" is utter nonsense.
Staff Attorney, Legal Aid Society of Orange County
Is there a right to be homeless? Not necessarily. However, when a municipality
criminalizes the public existence of involuntarily homeless people by systematically
arresting them and destroying their belongings, it has violated fundamental
rights guaranteed by our Constitution. In his 1992 decision, Federal Judge Atkins
did little more than recognize these basic freedoms and liberties and provide
the homeless a modicum of protection from this police brutality. Judge Atkins
concluded that Miami's anti-homeless policy violated the Eighth Amendment's
ban on punishment based on involuntary status. This doctrine prohibits punishing
people for being drug addicts or alcoholics. It would undoubtedly bar the government
from arresting people for being gay or having AIDS. Although Ms. Rothstein questions
whether, as a matter of social policy, it is good to acknowledge homelessness
as an involuntary condition, in Miami the uncontroverted expert testimony established
Judge Atkins held that Miami's strategy of seizing and destroying the property
of the homeless violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable
seizures and Fifth Amendment protection from taking of private property without
just compensation. These same laws protect us from having our cars confiscated
when we are stopped for traffic offenses and from having our real estate appropriated,
without compensation, when the government decides it serves the public best
to run a highway through it.
Finally, Judge Atkins found that Miami's harassment of the homeless unjustifiably
burdened their fundamental right to travel. This is the same law that prohibits
states from erecting artificial barriers to migration such as denying public
benefits for nonresidency. By enforcing its "zero tolerance" policy,
Miami effectively forced its homeless out or constantly to be on the move. While
Miami claimed its anti-homeless policy advanced legitimate goals (i.e. maintaining
parks and public areas, promoting tourism, crime prevention, etc.), none was
sufficiently tailored to justify such an oppressive course of action.
Some might say we should ignore these constitutional rights to rid our cities
of the visible presence of the homeless. Ms. Rothstein might even argue this
would serve their best interests. I suggest we cannot stand in judgment and
tamper with the delicate balance struck by the Constitution between the rights
of government and the individual. The Constitution has stood as the guardian
of democracy and protector of the politically powerless for more than two centuries.
If we neglect its boundaries today, they will be weakened tomorrow when a different
majority seeks to oppress us.
Judge Atkins did not sentence homeless people to a life of marginalized existence
in public places. Indeed, he specifically disclaimed the authority to remedy
homelessness. Instead, he identified the Constitution's firm barrier against
a city's oppressive campaign to cleanse its streets of this unwanted people.
He put the pressure back where it belongs, on government and its constituents,
to develop effective programs to combat homelessness while respecting individual
Judge Atkins's plan has worked. Miami has begun attempting to address homelessness
in a responsible, sensitive way. Sadly, it wasted five years defending its right
to arrest homeless people for doing what they must in public. However, few would
deny that the city never would have changed its ways had it not been taken to
task in court.
Benjamin S. Waxman
Co-chair, Legal Panel, Miami Chapter of the ACLU
Plaintiffs' lawyer, Pottinger et al. v. City of Miami
Vivian Rothstein's "Is there a Right to be Homeless?" is right
on the mark. Seattle and other cities around the country are struggling with
the issue of homelessness as a challenge far more complex than merely economics
of housing. They are recognizing that chronic drug and alcohol addiction and
severe mental illness are major contributing factors for a majority of "street"
people. Public policy at both the federal and local level is evolving into a
more comprehensive strategy aimed at the complexities of the problem. Treatment,
housing, and jobs are important components of that strategy, but so too is reasserting
basic standards of civil behavior, not only to protect the community's interests,
but because, as Rothstein eloquently states, it is in the interest of the street
people themselves. While laws alone are not the solution, they are part of it.
Maintaining the civility of our streets and the quality of urban life is vitally
important for all of us. By setting standards and limits on behavior we help
the addicted and mentally ill confront the reality of their afflictions and
the need to come to grips with it, rather than enabling self-destructive behavior
through denial and blame shifting. More broadly, increasing levels of misbehavior
concentrated in certain urban districts cause the law abiding to withdraw from
the streets not simply because they are offended, but because they feel threatened.
Their withdrawal sets in motion a dangerous downward spiral of blight, decay,
and crime of which the street people themselves are ultimately the most frequent
victims. As the law abiding withdraw from an area, retail businesses are marginalized,
causing many to fail or relocate. Vacant storefronts lead to graffiti, trash,
the stench of urine in the doorway, and more misbehavior which causes more withdrawal.
Criminal predators are drawn to such areas like moths to the light, and it is
the homeless and the helpless who are likely to be preyed upon the most. The
loss of productive economic activity in these areas not only destroys jobs,
but reduces sales tax and other revenues that are vital to support the local
government services which help people in need. Finally, both public and private
charitable financial support for helping street people is undermined by the
increasing association in the minds of many people of this population and misbehavior.
The "advocates" and the media characterize the shift taking place
as a "backlash" against the homeless, but it is more aptly characterized
as a backlash against failed public policies, policies that have failed both
street people and the community. The "advocates" invoke their ideological
bogeymen of capitalism, "downtown business," and Reagan/Bush as the
root problems while defending the "right" of chronic public inebriates
to "self-medicate with alcohol" until they are ready for treatment.
The truth is that both the right and the left have contributed to the crisis
on our streets; the right through a Darwinian slashing of essential services
and spending at just the time when the demographics of the "Boomers"
bring the largest cohort in history of mentally ill and addicted to the streets,
and the left by beating its dialectical drum about class victimization rather
than acknowledging the role of individual responsibility and accountability
in determining what happens to people.
If we are to succeed in addressing homelessness, we will have to be honest in
assessing the nature and causes of the problem and commit to the comprehensive
strategy necessary to doing something about it, from housing to treatment, jobs
to law enforcement. I believe there is far more common ground in this regard
than the shrill rhetoric and political theater of the "advocates"
might suggest. Vivian Rothstein has made an important contribution to the debate
with her thoughtful and gutsy piece.
Mark H. Sidran
Seattle City Attorney
I want to thank Vivian Rothstein for exemplifying the liberal view of homelessness.
For as I argue in my book Checkerboard Square (based on several years
of research and participant observation with homeless people in a New England
city), neither liberals nor conservatives really understand the crisis of homelessness
and poverty (and a host of other social problems). True, liberals and social
service providers prefer the carrot to the stick: they urge rehabilitation,
treatment, and shelter for the poor, rather than some of the more extreme repression
of conservatives. But if street people and others refuse to do what "we"
want them to do, the alternative becomes quite similar to the solutions of conservatives
and much of the public; get rid of them! Having offered poor people so much
(perhaps a referral to a degrading municipal shelter or a referral to counseling),
how could a thinking, healthy person conceivably reject this heightened benevolence
and stay on the streets?
The people like "Chester" in Ms. Rothstein's article (a bright, articulate
homeless leader who apparently is not "coming in from the streets")
frustrate service providers no end. They do so because they reveal that the
crisis of homelessness and poverty in America is not only about the lack of
affordable housing, social welfare cutbacks, and unemployment, but the failure
of the institutions of society to work at all for an increasing number of people.
This crisis is, yes, an economic crisis, but it is also a cultural crisis, a
breakdown in family, community, and the very system of meanings in our society.
Several homeless people I met have posed some key questions: "Is it so
much better to live alone in a rundown SRO room when I can be together with
my street buddies?" or "Is a job at Burger King so great, when I can
make more collecting cans or stripping copper off the books?" or "Why
should I be humiliated staying at a shelter and being strip searched when I
can stay in an abandoned building?" I think these questions don't even
occur to Ms. Rothstein, or for that matter, to most of us in the middle class.
Rather than seeing her clients as walking pathologies, Ms. Rothstein might benefit
from listening to them and learning more about their struggle to survive.
Finally, Ms. Rothstein speaks of "standards and limits on acceptable behavior"
with which the homeless must comply. The obvious question will be: "Whose
standards and limits?" It is my guess that Ms. Rothstein probably supports
freedom for the middle class to engage in alternative lifestyles and behaviors.
She probably also has no trouble with a middle class kid hanging on the street
corner or an average American coming home and having a drink. Yet when you are
poor and hang out on the same street corner and (God forbid) maybe even have
a drink to keep yourself warm, then our "standards and limits" are
As a society we have stripped the very poor of virtually everything. Are their
civil rights next?
David Wagner, Ph. D.
University of Southern Maine
Vivian Rothstein Responds:
The New York Times's forecast for southern Maine tonight is nine degrees
below zero. So I don't buy Portland resident David Wagner's thesis that my middle
class prejudices are what compel me to resist homelessness as an accommodation
to poverty. Our predecessors thousands of years ago found caves, pitched tents
and dug holes to preserve life itself for themselves and their families. Housing
is part of our civilization; everyone needs it to survive. There are some who
romanticize homelessness as freedom and liberation from social repression. But
anyone who sees the consequences of long term homelessness knows that there
is nothing romantic about what it does to a person's physical and mental health.
Homelessness can be lethal. There is nothing radical about it.
The job of homeless advocates is to make it easier to get off the streets rather
than simply easier to live on them. I applaud attorneys Harry Simon and Benjamin
S. Waxman for protecting homeless people from brutality and harassment resulting
from their homeless status. It is crucial that police departments and other
city agencies not be given free rein to sweep homeless people from one locality
to another. But the subsequent legal remedies concern me -- specifically, sanctioned
encampments, outdoor services, and social isolation as solutions to the homeless
crisis. (I was glad to hear that no one in Miami found the judge's remedy of
"safe zones" acceptable -- neither homeless people nor city officials.)
Because people's lives are at stake, there are subtleties involved in homeless
advocacy which I was hoping to illuminate in my article. My goal was to provoke
the discussions which we need to move our society away from accepting permanent
homelessness for thousands of Americans. Pressure to get off the streets cannot
be allowed to be brutal and oppressive but neither can it be totally absent.
If it is, we are acquiescing to the idea that homelessness is an acceptable
solution to social and economic inequities in our society.
A key ingredient of any solution, of course, is affordable housing in all categories.
In Southern California, at least, I don't think we'll be able to address the
housing issue effectively without challenging the restrictions that make the
construction of housing so prohibitively expensive. While our communities are
increasingly conscious of protecting their pristine physical environments, the
social environment of abject poverty in our parks is becoming an accepted part
of the urban landscape.
As a homeless advocacy movement we have to think carefully about the solutions
we put forward for solving this national crisis. The alternatives we present
are no less than the vision of what we feel is possible and just in our society.
With somewhat receptive federal leadership for the first time since the current
homeless crisis began, we must think carefully about what we suggest those solutions
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