One of the most interesting, revealing and important discussions I have ever had occurred in 1992 on a beach at the Four Seasons in Maui. I had been invited there as part of the Young Leaders Program of the Atlantic Council of the United States and was meeting with a few dozen other under 40’s from around the world.
One day, on that beach, I was talking to a fellow named Jaroslaw Guzy. Jaroslaw had been a leader in the student arm of the Solidarity movement in Poland and had spent some time in prison during the martial law years. The “authorities” had come for Jaroslaw in the night, taken him away and locked him up.
Having been a Soviet Studies major in college in the 1970s, I asked a question I had always wanted to ask someone like him. I knew that Soviet-style constitutions included language about freedom of speech, expression and so on – most of the typical Bill of Rights issues. So I asked him about that fact and about how it was they offered no protection (beyond the lack of a moral compass in the leadership).
He pointed out that, unlike the U.S. Constitution, the constitutions in those countries offered absolutely no protection against things like unreasonable search and seizure. There was no right to representation, jury trial, due process, self-incrimination or any of those things. I came to understand that day, in that most unlikely of places, with the most unlikely of people, that the portions of the U.S. Constitution offering those protections are the most important pieces of the U.S. Constitution. That is why I have always cringed when I hear some people call those rights “criminals rights.” They are my rights. And yours.
I thought of that conversation while reading an important new book, Red Notice, by Bill Browder. If you read one book this year, read this one. Browder was the largest investor in Russia, until he began to understand how the leadership kleptocracy was robbing the country blind and tried to do something about it. His Russian tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, an idealistic young man who came of age in post-communist Russia, was arrested, tortured and killed by the country he loved, a country he was confident operated under a rule of law and could never do such a thing. And it was done to him simply because he had helped uncover a massive tax fraud.
Most of the articles about Red Notice are about Browder and Putin and the future of Russia. But it is also a cautionary tale about what happens when the basic protections we take for granted are eroded or non-existent. The book is filled with stories of Browder and his people working through channels, doing what the law directed them to do. And the result was tragic.
Oftentimes when we hear about particularly heinous crimes, we want to start peeling those protections away; for those people, the ones who commit these crimes. It may feel good and may seem like a sensible thought, but we should remember that those protections are there to be applied to all of us, and not selectively. And what happened to people like Jaroslaw Guzy and Sergei Magnitsky can happen to anyone when those protections are stripped away. After all, neither Guzy nor Magnitsky did anything wrong.