Sunday, April 28, 2013

Treat Terrorists Like Common Criminals

The Obama administration made the right decision when it decided to go ahead and charge Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in US District Court on charges related to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. We have mixed emotions about the Department of Justice reserving the option to question Tsarnaev under a “public safety exception” before reading him his Miranda rights — but federal officials recognized that any information obtained during that interim questioning might end up excluded from any judicial proceeding against Tsarnaev.

Officials said they had no choice but to prosecute Tsarnaev in domestic court because he is a naturalized US citizen. Republican members of Congress had demanded that the 19-year-old suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings be turned over to military courts to be held and tried as an “enemy combatant.”

The death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old brother, after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., spared authorities a more dicey determination of how to proceed with the older brother who probably was the mastermind of the plot but had not become a citizen. In our view, the feds should not have the option of sending foreigners suspected of criminal activity in the United States to a military court system, where they can be denied a lawyer and other normal rights of due process. Republicans who sought that move, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Peter King of New York, ought to know better.
We agree with Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil LIberties Union, who said the public safety exception to providing the “Miranda” warning, when used, should be read narrowly. Romero noted that, after Tsarnaev was arrested, law enforcement officials indicated that there was no more imminent threat to the public. “The curfew had been lifted. And whatever the suspect’s connections to other possible accomplices, the government had ample surveillance powers to track their phones and access their email and Twitter accounts,” he said.

But as a practical matter, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been in the United States for a decade, he was graduated from high school in Cambridge and was attending the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. In that time, if he had not learned about the Fifth Amendment in his courses, he probably had been exposed to episodes of Law and Order, or other police procedurals, where the Miranda warning is frequently recited. [Editor's Note: After this was written, it was reported that after Tsarvaev was informed of his rights, he stopped talking. Apparently he was not a Law and Order fan.]

More important, every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. As Romero said, “We must not waver from our tried-and-true justice system, even in the most difficult of times. Denial of rights is un-American and will only make it harder to obtain fair convictions.”

Ever since 9/11 Congress has been seeking to protect us from the remote threat of terrorism at the expense of civil liberties. It is encouraging that a Washington Post poll conducted nationwide April 17-18 and released April 22 found that a plurality of 48% said they fear the government will go too far in compromising constitutional rights in order to investigate terrorism, while 41% fear the government will not go far enough to investigate terrorism because of concerns about constitutional rights.

Neither the habeas corpus clause in Article One, nor the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments detailing the legal rights of persons charged with crimes distinguish between the legal rights of citizens and those of non-citizens. Any prosecution that assumes such a distinction is on shaky legal and moral ground.

Americans seem willing to set aside basic constitutional rights to confront the threat from terrorists, which is the biggest victory the terrorists have scored. Chris Hayes of MSNBC noted that terrorist attacks in the US claimed 3,033 lives from 2000 through 2010, but our nation appears to be less troubled by the 60,394 Americans who died in workplace accidents in the same period and 335,609 people who died from gunfire in the US.

Four Democratic senators are coming in for harsh criticism from gun-control advocates for voting with the National Rifle Association April 17 to block expanded background checks for gun buyers. The proposal had a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but it needed 60 votes to proceed. (Majority Leader Harry Reid supported the proposal, but switched his vote to opposition so that, under Senate rules, he could bring up the proposal again.)

We think the expanded background checks was the least Congress should do in attempting to check the epidemic of gun deaths, which have totaled more than 30,000 per year during the past decade (with two thirds of those deaths accidental or suicides). The measure would force more gun buyers — particularly those who shop at gun shows and over the Internet — to pass a background check to make sure they had not been judged mentally unstable, felonious or otherwise ineligible to own a gun. But the NRA has demonstrated its willingness to lie about the amendment, claiming that it was just the first step toward the feds seizing the nation’s more than 300 million private guns.

Many Democratic senators made that tough vote to expand background checks, knowing that they will come under fire (figuratively, we hope) for that vote at home. But we don’t blame Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) or David Pryor (Ark.) for balking.
Even if all four of those out-of-line Democrats had voted for the amendment, the measure would still have fallen one vote short of advancing. But they would be resigning themselves to spend the next two years fighting Republicans and NRA members claiming that the Democrats had voted to grab honest people’s guns. And even if the gun control forces had found another Republican vote in the Senate, to join the four Republicans who voted for the “bipartisan” deal, all that victory would have accomplished was send the bill limping to the Republican House, where gun control advocates would be lucky to get a committee hearing before watching the bill die.

If 80 to 90 percent of Americans really support expanded background checks, as some recent public opinion surveys report, and if substantial majorities also support limits on magazine size and/or a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, voters are going to have to defeat Republican members of Congress in 2014 to show they are serious. But a recent Associated Press-GfK poll conducted April 11-15 shows waning public support for tighter gun laws, as 49% said gun laws should be made stricter while 38% said they should stay the same. The last time a Democratic Congress passed an assault weapons ban, in 1994, Democrats lost control of Congress in the next election. Backlash against gun control was a major issue in that turnover, particularly in rural areas. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since then. If you think you are going to advance gun regulation by defeating Democratic senators in Alaska, Arkansas and North Dakota (Baucus is not seeking re-election in Montana), you are fooling yourself.

Proposals to limit magazine capacity on semi-automatic guns and to ban assault weapons also fell by wide margins in the April 17 round of Senate voting. Ironically, an amendment that came closer to passing was Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) NRA-backed proposal to require all states to recognize out-of-state permits to carry concealed handguns. That received 57 votes, with 13 Dems joining 44 Republicans (all but Mark Kirk, R-Ill.) in supporting the pro-vigilante measure. If your senators include Baucus, Begich, Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Pryor, Mark Udall (CO), Tom Udall (N.M.), Jon Tester (Mont.) or Mark Warner (Va.), let them know you’re disappointed.

States should have the authority to regulate who is packing heat in public — and even our right-wing Supreme Court appears to agree that states can regulate the carrying of firearms. On April 15 it refused to hear an NRA challenge of a New York law limiting concealed-carry permits to those who demonstrate that they have a special need for self-protection — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2013
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