Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why We Cannot Strip American Citizens of Their Rights

Joe Lieberman's proposal to strip American citizens of their rights as American citizens is incredibly misguided and, to put it simply, wrong.  The call emanates from the arrest of Faisel Shahzad, the Pakistan-born American citizen accused of unsuccessfully trying to detonate a homemade bomb in the middle of Times Square.  As much as I hate that an American citizen is capable of something like this, the fact remains that Shahzad is an American citizen; this cannot be glossed over.  Shahzad has all of the rights you and I do under the Constitution despite his actions and this should not be stripped from him or any other American citizen misguided enough to try to attempt something like this.

America is a nation of laws, and both the Constitution and the Supreme Court have confirmed the rights of Americans under the law.  Miranda v. Arizona (1966) held that suspects needed to be informed of their rights before a proper interrogation could begin and a legitimate confession could be obtained.  When Congress tried to overrule the Miranda warning via legislation, Chief Justice Rehnquist said that the warnings had become "part of our national culture" and Congress' actions were invalidated in the 7-2 ruling in Dickerson v. United States (2000).  So as much as Joe Lieberman might want to introduce legislation that would invalidate Miranda's necessity for those suspected of terrorism, he's going to have a serious uphill battle given the legal precedents already well-established in this country.

Lieberman also wants to strip Americans found to have joined a terrorist organization of their citizenship.  This is a very sticky issue, as the definition of "terrorist organization" is one that is ever-evolving and tends to be a bit vague at times.  Obviously you have Al-Qaeda and its various offshoots, but what about those involved in recent past "terrorist activities?"  I'm thinking of the African National Congress and the IRA, to name two.  What about street gangs like the Crips and Bloods that have killed more Americans than terrorists could even dream of?  And what about "lone wolfs" like Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols?  Would they have been stripped of their citizenship if this law were in place then?  And this brings me to another point I talked about last week: would the Hutaree be stripped of their citizenship under this law?  If not, why not?  And finally, the one question I don't really see anyone asking, how will this law prevent any type of terrorist attack?  I'd rather have public officials trying to figure out how to prevent attacks without stripping citizens of their rights, not how to deal with terrorists once an attack has already taken place.

Let's look at recent legislation that has curtailed Americans' rights, such as the Patriot Act.  Has this made you safer?  Are you actually safer because the FBI is combing through library records and tapping your phones without judicial permission?  Has it had a significant effect on your everyday safety?  Will Lieberman's law do the same?  Will it actually make you safer or will it just give you a false sense of security?  Will future legislation continue to curb your freedoms as an American?  I'd like to quote Martin Meehan (D-MA), who probably did not realize the irony of his words when he said them: "The Patriot Act was an effort to answer the most difficult question a democracy faces: How much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe?" (emphasis added.)  As a high-ranking official in Washington once told me, "Perception is much more important than reality."

I love this country, and I love the freedoms and liberties we are given as American citizens.  I don't want to see them eroded by public officials in the name of the perception of safety.  One (of many) of the reasons terrorists hate this country is the freedoms we are allowed on an everyday basis: freedom of speech and religion, namely.  If we start stripping American citizens of these freedoms, aren't we moving closer to a type of state that the terrorists would want for us?  One in which simply being accused of a crime warrants the restriction of protections afforded us by the Constitution and the Supreme Court?  I'm going to use one of my favorite quotes to end this post, uttered by Benjamin Franklin: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Photo - Joe Lieberman (Wikipedia)

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