Giving Terrorists Rights and Preserving Our Constitution

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February 17, 2010 by Daniel Stack

In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.

– Scott Brown, Senator from Massachusetts

It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.

– John Adams, Massachusetts Delegate to Continental Congress, President of the United States, reflecting on his defending the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre

I watched the events of September 11, 2001, like pretty much every other American, with a sense of overwhelming horror and a need to see those responsible brought to justice. Originally hailing from New York City, I had often been to the World Trade Center.

There has been discussion that our fight against terrorists should no know boundaries. The terrorists should have no right to trial. Torture should of course be an option. The only debate should be where to apply the electrodes to first.

I reject that notion. Not for their benefit, but ours. The “anything goes” approach to terrorism is a dangerous one to pursue. Consider, what criteria is used to declare a person a terrorist and therefore bereft of the protection of our laws? Can we guarantee a legal resident alien will never, ever be mistakenly be declared a terrorist? Consider the case of Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer of dual Syrian-Canadian citizenship. He was detained in the United States on his way home from a family vacation. Believed to be an Al Qaeda associate or member (something which has never been proven – or even had evidence to make it remotely likely) he was interrogated and denied a lawyer because he was not an American citizen. He was eventually “deported” to Syria where he was tortured for ten months. The United States government refused to even deport him to Canada despite his not being to Syria since he left with his parents at the age of 17 in 1988 to avoid compulsory military service there.

How many Maher Arars have there been? How many more will there be? What will it do to our nation if anyone can be labeled a terrorist and stripped of his or her rights without due process? Do recent immigrants need to worry about their parents visiting and getting detained?

Also consider the lack of trust a lot of Americans have in their government. If a public option for health care and be construed as a Bolshevik plot, how is it we are willing to trust our government when it comes to who is it who can be tortured? Who is it who has rights? John Adams, who made the unpopular choice to defend British soldiers for opening fire on Americans in Boston is the same president who passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a massive abridgment of First Amendment rights. There’s a reason why are system has so many checks and balances – because no man – or group of men – should have unchecked power. Hence our system of ambition counteracting ambition. A system which inherently distrusts power.

Note this is not to say that we must roll over and meekly submit to real threats. There is a rhetorical phrase “the Constitution is not a suicide pact”. It is not an outline of how our nation can be easily conquered. But it does frame the rules we play by. There are certainly different tools for different occasions. A military tribunal is certainly appropriate for a person captured in combat operations overseas. It is the same system used after World War II. But also recall after World War II the United States insisted on a fair system of dealing with Germans in the Nuremberg Trials.

The terrorists who hate us are not so strong and our nation not so weak that we need to shred our Constitution in order to protect ourselves. Indeed I’d argue that doing so is another way of giving terrorists victory over us. If their use of terror causes us to abandon our principles then our principles must not be very strong.

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