While the actual threat of terrorism is rather minor (even the worry that terrorists might obtain a nuclear weapon clearly pales beside the fact that nations are already well armed with nuclear weapons) there is still an ongoing obsession with passing laws allegedly aimed at security.
As with many attempts to (allegedly) improve security, one of the more recent approaches has involved a clear infringement on rights and liberties. To be specific, the senate recently blocked an attempt to ban the indefinite imprisonment of Americans suspected of terrorism.
The stock justifications for allowing the military to detain American indefinitely are that terrorists are bad and that to not allow this sort of thing puts us in greater danger.
While it is true that terrorists are bad, rapists and murders are also rather bad. In fact, more Americans are killed by non-terrorists than terrorists and this would seem to thus warrant indefinite detainment of all dangerous criminals. This, as might be imagined, would run contrary to the basic legal rights of Americans. As such, the idea that terrorists are bad does not seem to warrant this difference in treatments.
As far as the security value of indefinite detainment, one obvious point of concern is that in order to detain a person, they must be discovered and arrested (or captured). As such, the indefinite detainment does not seem to aid in actually capturing people. It merely allows people to be held indefinitely. While this could be justified on the grounds that a person who is detained indefinitely would do no more misdeeds, the same argument could be applied to anyone who poses a threat-which would include many non-terrorist criminals.
It might be argued that a terrorist is not entitled to the rights of a citizen since he is an enemy combatant. In the case of alleged terrorists who have allegedly elected to serve a foreign power, they could be taken to be traitors. However, the matter becomes a bit muddled when the alleged terrorist is entirely domestic in allegiance and motivations. In such cases, the person could be taken to be a traitor in the sense that he would be allegedly making war on the United States. Of course, what would be needed is a clear distinction between a terrorist and a criminal who merely intends to murder Americans and destroy things. Perhaps this could be sorted out in a clear and principled manner.
Perhaps the most significant point of concern is that an American who is accused of being a terrorist in the United States is just that-an accused terrorist. Until it is legally established that an American is a terrorist, then he is merely a suspect and thus still entitled to the full legal rights of an American citizen. In other words, if an American is taken on American soil and denied his rights because he is alleged to be a terrorist, then his rights have been violated because he has been assumed guilty without trial. If he is to be justly stripped of such rights, then his status as a terrorist must be established.
If an American is captured outside of the United States while acting as an enemy combatant (for example, he is captured during an attack on an American base in Afghanistan), then a reasonable case could be made for treating him as an enemy combatant. However, he would still be an American citizen and must be subject to the American legal system. Naturally, if an American is killed while attacking American forces in an act of war, then that death would (in general) be justified.
A final point of concern is that indefinite detainment will be misused. After all, the most common application of the various “anti-terrorist” laws has been in the area of mundane crime (mainly drug crimes). One obvious concern is that this approach could be used against people who are protesting against the government or who might be targeted for detention without trial.
It might be objected that I am “naive” and do not see “the danger.” My obvious reply is that this alleged danger does not warrant the violation of our basic legal rights. Each time someone wishes to erode rights they make these same sort of appeals to fear and “security.” While such fears might be sincere, they do not warrant an attack on the very liberties and rights they are allegedly created to defend.
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