If America is about anything, it is about the rights of citizens not to be held without charges and not to be subject to cruel or inhuman punishment. When our Constitution was written, in the late 18th century, those were urgent memories. In 21st-century America, they still are with us.

A 23-year-old San Diego college student – not charged with a crime – was locked in a windowless cell April 21 and stayed there, unnoticed, for more than four days. He was forgotten by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which had detained him in a drug sweep. The story of this travesty, published in our Friday edition, depicted the man’s struggle to alert his captors, deal with hallucinations and even to drink his own urine for fluid.

Is this the old Soviet Union, where secret police were licensed to detain people in secret locations forever?

Bureaucracies beyond a certain size are inherently inefficient, as C. Northcoate Parkinson famously observed in Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. For America in 2012, this is not an idle or academic concern. The federal establishment is a set of large bureaucracies. As we are learning with revelations about the Secret Service, some federal bureaucracies are impaired by a destructive culture.

Congress too frequently makes a headline in response to one of these travesties, but fails to fundamentally force change. We wish Congressman Duncan Hunter of California well in outrage and demand for answers from the DEA. The rest of us are fools if we don’t pay attention.

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