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The US and Rights

Many Americans may find it galling. Their country the target of a human-rights investigation?

Yes, its founding principles are sometimes imperfectly applied - or even violated. But the United States remains, to a remarkable degree, "the land of the free." So who's criticizing?

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Amnesty International is. Known for taking on rights abusers wherever it finds them, the organization issued a report Oct. 6 designed to put a klieg light on areas where it feels the US falls short of its ideals.

The charges leveled by Amnesty focus on police methods, crowded prisons, and the death penalty. Also included: Washington's sale of military and security technology to repressive governments and its treatment of asylum seekers.

There are bona fide problems in all these areas. Police brutality sadly persists, and racial minorities often get a disproportionate helping of it. Prison conditions are scandalous in some states; packed cellblocks spark violence among inmates and by guards. The death penalty, as we've long argued on this page, is not always uniformly applied, can't be reversed if exonerating evidence later emerges, and may be intrinsically inhumane. Weapons exports raise serious moral and rights questions. Asylum seekers who lack proper documentation have been jailed like common criminals pending adjudication of their claims.

Some of these issues, like the death penalty and prison overcrowding, are woven into today's politics, and may change as voters change.

Police brutality is a dangerous abuse of governmental power. Efforts to root it out must be standard policy. Better detention facilities and quicker review systems are needed for asylum seekers - as the Immigration and Naturalization Service knows.

Unlike many other parts of the world, the US has the means, and can muster the democratic will, to improve its record in all these areas.

Closing the gap between democratic theory and practice has, in fact, been a persistent theme in American history. The Amnesty report may sell that theme a little short, but it may also do its small part to keep it going.

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