Right now, two New York City girls, both 16, have been detained and accused of plotting to become suicide bombers. If there is a real reason to believe that charge, officials are obviously right to have acted. But so far, they have said little about the evidence against the girls, and the girls' friends and families have offered accounts that suggest the charges could be completely false.
This is one of the most disturbing trends in post 9/11 law enforcement. People get nabbed for being all terorristy, then we never hear anything else about it. Think of Messrs. Al-Hamdi or Padilla, who are American citizens held incommunicado for years. American citizens. "Oh," says the Bush Administration, "They're bad guys. Enemy combatants. Can't let 'em go. Or talk to an attorney. Sucks to be them, huh?"
That's not kosher. Even John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan with a smoking AK-47 in his hands, so to speak, got a speedy trial. Mr. Padilla, who as captured in at O'Hare in Chicago, on US soil, has been held incommunicado as an enemy combatant, without any evidence he's done any actual, you know, combating. Why hasn't he been tried? Apparently the government's evidence is just good enough to keep him imprisoned indefinitely without charges, but not quite good enough to submit to a jury of his peers in open court.
Still, here's where the conflict comes in:
The government calls the girls an "imminent threat," and says it has "evidence that they plan to be suicide bombers." But it has not described the evidence, insisting that national security requires that much of it remain secret. Because the girls are here illegally, they have been put into a deportation system that affords them far fewer rights than ordinary criminal suspects have. There is no definite limit on how long they can be held.
Well, here's a simple solution: Deport 'em.
And they're 16 years old. If they're here illegally, one wonders about the immigration status of their parents. Are they here illegally too? If so, then round them up and deport them, too. Be a shame to break up the family, after all.
Problem solved. No one is held in indefinite detention, and these two sweet young things won't be able to strap dynamite to their chests and blow up a Manhattan nightclub.
Apparently, the New York Times' editors haven't thought that deeply into it.
But, the Times is right about one thing. Since 9/11, it's a lot easier to become an unperson in the United States. And law enforcement has been....zealous. Still, the particular examples used in the editorial aren't all that convincing. At least, not for the reason the Times' editors think, anyway.
No one wants to leap to conclusions about a government case in such an important area. But the record is not reassuring. Last year, the government wrongly jailed Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer who is a Muslim, for two weeks after the F.B.I. mistakenly matched his fingerprint to one found at the scene of the Madrid train bombing.
OK, it was a bad mistake. And I'm sure Mr. Mayfield now has grounds for a suit for damages against the government. But, I mean, it's not like he was arrested because Inspector Reynaud ordered that all the usual suspects be rounded up. They thought they had his fingerprints at a mass-murder crime scene. Police are real sticklers about stuff like that. One also notes that, as soon as they figured out they were wrong, Mr. Mayfield was released.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department rounded up hundreds of Muslim men who were here illegally and detained them for months, often in deplorable conditions. The department's inspector general later found that the F.B.I. had made "little attempt to distinguish" those with terrorism ties from those without.
Well, of course, that was wrong. They should have been deported immediately.
Shortly after 9/11, federal authorities detained a Nepalese tourist for three months in a tiny cell after he inadvertently included an F.B.I. building in a videotape of the sights of New York for folks at home.
Now, this is one example that has some relevance. Obviously the FBI was wrong to do this.
The thing is, that, bad examples aside, the Times is right. Federal Law Enforcement officials have to be watched like a hawk. And they obviously need more oversight, because they are clearly prone to overreaction.
I think the government should have the least amount of power necessary to mantain order in our society. I must admit, however, that I haven’t gotten too worked up about all the supposed civil liberties abuses committed by the Bush Administration. I don’t know of anyone who has had his/her rights violated by the government’s war on terror. As long as you don’t travel to a terrorist training camp (e.g. Lackawanna five) or plot to detonate a dirty bomb (e.g. Padilla) or get picked up on an Afghan battlefield (Al-Hamdi) you really haven’t had anything to worry about. I’ll admit if Clinton were in office I would be a lot more worried. He had no compunction about violating the law when it came to 900 FBI files in the White House or Elian Gonzalez etc.
However, the truth is that on September 10, 2001, there would have been insufficient evidence to arrest the 9/11 highjackers. I say that as an experieinced attorney. We now know that they had conspired to commit the highjackings (criminal conspiracy) by that time but, in reality, there would have been nothing to hold them on except for immigration violations. And that would have only applied to a couple of them. They hadn’t committed any crimes. They were taking flight lessons and working out at gyms. Posession of ceramic box cutters isn’t against the law. Plus, the ACLU would’ve had a field day accusing the government of racism in arresting young Arab men who just wanted to come here to better themselves.
People can moralize and accuse the administration of base motives, but the truth is that prior to most terrorist acts there isn’t a lot of evidence to use in prosecuting these people. Obviously that would be different in the case of a suicide bombing, but prosecution would only really be possible if you let the plot proceed until just before the terroist act. For example, what about someone who legally obtained a license to transport hazardous materials and intended to crash a rig somewhere where it would kill lots of people. Up until the time he committed the act there wouldn’t be sufficent evidence of a crime to arrest him, let alone convict him. I remember the one issue on which there was unaminity amongst all those who testified before the 9/11 commission. Louis Freeh, Robert Mueller, Janet Reno, Richard Clarke, John Ashcroft, etc. all agreed that the powers granted by the Patriot Act were key to winning the war on terror.