What Hath Terrorism Wrought?

December 9, 2011 09:01

The bill would explicitly empower the government to keep suspected terrorists in military custody indefinitely without trial, on the mere basis of suspicion of terrorist activities, and it does not make specific exception for American citizens.

By Zachary Gappa at Center for a Just Society

Our nation’s ongoing war on terror has had a major impact on the traditional tension between security and liberty. The latest news item is the Senate’s passage of the latest National Defense Authorization Act. This large bundle bill provides $662 billion in defense spending for the upcoming year but includes some discomfiting provisions targeted at traditional civil liberties.

The Senate is attempting to confirm and direct the President’s powers to detain suspected terrorists. Whatever your view of Guantanamo Bay and our recent history of detaining foreigners for extended periods of time without trial, there is a further disturbing lack of protection for American citizens in this bill. The bill would explicitly empower the government to keep suspected terrorists in military custody indefinitely without trial, on the mere basis of suspicion of terrorist activities, and it does not make specific exception for American citizens.

Such an exception was proposed. Senator Dianne Feinstein put forward an amendment that would state clearly that Americans arrested in the U.S. would not be subject to this kind of military detainment. The amendment was shot down by 55 votes in the Senate. Republicans dominated the “no” vote.

What are we to think of this? Republican Senator Mark Kirk, one of the few Republican supporters of the amendment, was appalled:

I took the time, as we all should from time to time, serving in this body, to re-read the Constitution of the United States yesterday. The Constitution says quite clearly: “In the trial of all crimes – no exception – there shall be a jury, and the trial shall be held in the State where said crimes have been committed.” Clearly, the Founding Fathers were talking about a civilian court, of which the U.S. Person is brought before in its jurisdiction….

The Sixth Amendment says: “In all criminal prosecutions” – not some, not by exception, in all criminal prosecutions – “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, but an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed” … I go on to these because I regard all of these rights as inherent to U.S. Citizens, granted to them by their birth in the United States.

Senator Kirk had much else to say, some of which you can read in a concise piece by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic (click here to read the article). Essentially, the Senator was appealing to core liberties, liberties confirmed in the Founding of our nation, as our Founders were laying out specific provisions in an attempt to secure liberty in a new nation. For what great cause do we give up these liberties?

Terrorism. That one word, that concept spawned by the horrific events of 9/11, has added immense weight to security on the balancing scales of security and liberty. It spawned an entire new department in the executive branch – the massively-funded Department of Homeland Security. It made us willing to take our shoes off and go through body image scanners in our airports. It made us quick to accept rapidly-expanding federal power, if only it would keep us more safe.

How many times have you heard the responses, “Well, if it will save lives I guess it’s OK” or “You won’t get in trouble if you have nothing to hide”? This quick willingness to give up freedoms for safety is our national response to “terrorism.”

It has, perhaps, become trite to ask the question: Have the terrorists won? But the question is valid, and it gets at a key reality in our fight against terrorism. Terrorists like those who executed the 9/11 attacks target America because they desire to undermine our culture. We currently live in a mixed bag culture, to be sure, but the core religious and political principles on which the U.S. was founded are exactly those principles most hated by terrorists. When we react to their attacks by quickly compromising those principles, we hand over a “win” to the terrorists. They have changed our culture by instilling great fear in our populace.

Republicans have long supported National Defense, but there is a significant difference between supporting National Defense and giving the Executive carte blanche to prosecute anything and everything in the name of combating terrorism.

Americans must become more suspicious of the expansion of governmental power, and we must treasure our freedoms more dearly. Generations of Americans have gladly given their lives to protect these freedoms. We must not give them up simply because it might protect someone somewhere somehow from terrorism. Previous generations demonstrated great courage and a readiness to die for our freedoms. Does our current generation lack such courage in our own homeland?

There are clearly difficult decisions to be made about how we respond to the threat of terrorist attacks. There are no easy answers, but gladly handing over Constitutional liberties for vague promises of safety is simply not the American way. At least, not the America our forefathers fought for and protected for over two hundred years.

Zachary Gappa is a Consultant for the Center for a Just Society and Operations Manager at Gappa Security Solutions. Some of his other articles have been published in various places online, including Town Hall, Crosswalk, and The Christian Post.

The CJS Forum seeks to promote an open exchange of ideas about the relationship between faith, culture, law and public policy. While all the articles are original and written especially for the CJS Forum, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for a Just Society.

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