Democratic Divisions on Terrorism

Today’s Washington Post has a story Democratic Divisions on how to approach the Bush Administration’s over-reaching tactics in the war on terror, specifically the warrantless eavesdropping program. One quote in particular grabbed my attention (from the Post):

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) “If you just say you’re standing up for civil liberties, the American people are with you, but if you say terrorism suspects should have civil liberties, it stretches Americans’ tolerance,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who along with Hastings represents Congress on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights monitor. “It’s a tough issue for us.”

First, there is the question of whether the Constitution, by its very nature, extends certain protections to all, regardless of citizenship. In earlier decisions, the Supreme Court has hinted that there are basic rights that belong to all, such as due process and freedom from cruel and inhumane punishment. Former Justice O’Connor famously wrote that the threat of terrorism does not give the executive a “blank check” in the pursuit of those who would do us harm. The issue is not whether we should extend “civil liberties” to terrorists but whether we will respect the constitution that forms the basis of our country.

Second, I suspect Mr. Cardin’s statement over-simplifies the debate and displays a lack of understanding about what citizens think. While I do not claim to understand what the “public” thinks, my impression is that a majority of people do not want our government indefinitely imprisoning and torturing people of dubious guilt and intelligence value. It’s not whether we should extend civil liberties, it’s whether our country is going to act humanely or with a wanton disregard for basic principles.

The problem that is rarely articulated in this debate is that we rarely know who the “terrorists” actually are. The question is not whether we should protect terrorists, but whether people who very well may be innocent should be treated as terrorists. The Bush Administration has taken the ‘shoot first ask questions later approach’ of suspecting everyone, then trying to narrow the scope. Many people believe these tactics are inefficient (not to say unconstitutional) and argue that we need a more logical and more effective approach to the war on terror. Many people also argue, with good cause, that when we discard our basic principles we also lose a part of ourselves; we must be careful that our protective measures do not leave us with nothing to protect.

The debate on terrorism can only benefit from more sophistication and more openness. The issues that confront our country are not black and white; if we pretend they are, we will never reach a solution.

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