A Little Rebellion Now and Then is a Good Thing

What do George Washington and Eldridge Cleaver have in common? Or John Brown and Mahatma Gandhi? The Stern Gang and the Palestine Liberation Organization? Jefferson Davis and Eugene Debs? In Rebels with a Cause: The Minds and Morality of Political Offenders, Nicholas Kittrie says they are all political offenders – men and women who, “professing loyalty to a divine or higher law, to the call of individual conscience, or to the imperatives of some perceived public good, have challenged the legitimacy and authority of the institutions of their governments” (p. 6). Kittrie sets out to study the whole lot: “Civil disobedients. Conscientious objectors. Dissidents. Fanatics. Freedom fighters. Fundamentalists. Militants. Political prisoners. Pseudopoliticals. Rebels. Regicides. Resisters. Revolutionaries. Terrorists” (p. xv). In addition to surveying the entire range of political offenders, Kittrie sets out to answer a set of related questions about the appropriate role of dissent, both domestically and internationally. How can one distinguish worthy dissenters from unworthy terrorists and criminals? When is dissent legitimate? How should governments treat their own political dissenters? How should nations respond when other countries abuse political rebels? What principles should guide asylum and extradition decisions? When are host nations liable for having given safe harbor to international political offenders? If Kittrie’s goals sound overly ambitious, they are. As a result, his book ends up giving mostly superficial attention to issues that require sustained analysis. This Review will examine Kittrie’s analysis from two perspectives. First, I will discuss what he has to say about rebels in the international arena. Kiitrie purports to offer a classification scheme that will allow the international community to objectively and prospectively distinguish political rebels from common criminals, and freedom fighters from terrorists. As we shall see, however, his scheme provides less guidance in making such distinctions than he imagines. Second, I consider Kittrie’s more successful discussion of American political rebels. In my discussion of Kittrie’s argument concerning America’s rebellious roots, government responses to political offenders, and the enduring importance of domestic dissent, I will draw particularly on the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.