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What’s That, On the Horizon?

May 10, 2010

If you strain your eyes you might just see it: Our constitutional rights, fading into the distance.

Last week’s attempted car bombing in Times Square has increased the U.S. government’s willingness to take drastic steps in the name of national security.  To be sure, President Obama faces a complicated question:  How can national security be protected without sacrificing this country’s core values?

Do we stand up for human rights and the rule of law? Or do we throw the Constitution out the window, history be damned?

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration will seek permission from Congress to interrogate terrorism suspects without reading them their Miranda rights.  Let’s not forget that the Miranda rule is intended to ensure that confessions are not coerced, and that the U.S. government has a long way to go in proving that state-sponsored torture is no longer an option.

Besides, police officers are already able to postpone the reading of Miranda rights when faced with imminent threats to public safety.  What’s more, the suspected Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, opted to continue talking even after he was read his Miranda rights.

Still.  Certain members of Congress are not pleased.

And — with today’s abrupt shift in tone by Attorney General Holder – the Obama administration may be more willing to submit to their demands.  Which is how we find ourselves straining to see how the Constitution fits into the picture.

Let’s take a look at what kinds of extreme measures Congress could turn to:

  • We have Senator John McCain’s (AZ) bill, which would allow anyone – including US citizens – to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, if the administration decides they are “unprivileged enemy belligerents.”
  • Finally, we have Senator Joe Lieberman’s (CT) new bill, which would revoke the citizenship of anyone who “joins a foreign terrorist organization or engages in or supports hostilities against the United States or its allies.”  The language of this bill is incredibly broad.  In fact, federal courts have ruled six times that the term “providing material support” – which is listed in the bill as one of the criteria for stripping citizenship – is unconstitutionally vague.

Not to be alarmist, but if the core provisions of these bills were enacted, we could conceivably be looking at a national witch-hunt that would make the McCarthy era look like child’s play.

Yes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (OH) are concerned about the constitutionality of Lieberman’s new bill.  Yes, experts dismiss the bill, saying that it is symbolic but ultimately “meaningless” – but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is willing to review it.

As Matt Southworth, one of FCNL’s program assistants and a veteran of the war in Iraq, says, “Let’s not be so hasty to react. Short of a military police state, which no one wants, the best ways to prevent acts of terrorism are good intelligence and utilization of the justice system.”

Let us not be ruled by fear.  Concerns over national security should never blind us to the need to uphold human rights and the rule of law.

I’ll leave you to meditate on this quote:

“[T]he laws and the Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.”  ~ U.S. Supreme Court, in Boumediene et al. v. Bush, President of the United States, et al.

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