Friday, May 14, 2010


Our societal takeaway from the recent failed Times Square bombing attempt is a teensy bit troubling. Following an unbelievably amateurish effort to detonate explosives, Faisal Shahzad was arrested on an aircraft. He apparently was quite the chatterbox, 'fessin' up almost enthusiastically. As Shahzad is a citizen of the United States, he was informed of his Miranda rights...meaning his rights under the Constitution. He kept on talkin', as getting attention was probably his hope all along. Probably something to do with getting back at his father, I'd surmise.

No citizen can be forced to incriminate themselves, and every citizen has the right to legal counsel. This little list of rights has been hammered into our heads. As pretty much every American TV show that's not reality TV is a cop/legal/courtroom drama, the Miranda statement is something we're all familiar with.

It's a given.

Or was, if things roll the way they seem to be rolling. Right wingers are, as they always are, outraged that Shahzad was read his Miranda rights. He's a terrorist! He doesn't deserve his Miranda rights! He stopped being a citizen the moment he decided to Wage War On America! There's much huffing and posturing and indignation, resulting in the possibility that terror suspects who "pose an imminent threat" may no longer be Mirandized. This, we are told, is an extension of the public safety exception, which allows suspects to be detained and questioned without being informed of their rights. This stirs all sorts of thoughts, but two in particular:

First, I'm not sure what actually constitutes a "public safety exception." Strong evidence pointed to Shahzad's culpability, sure. But he wasn't in the process of setting off a bomb. He wasn't at the scene of a crime immediately after its commission. He was on an airplane, sitting on his behind. So here is a citizen, who is the primary suspect in an investigation. He is arrested. He is read his rights, which he may then choose to act on...or not. Reading his rights to him did not, in any way that I can see, negatively impact public safety.

Second, and more significant, there are the implications of applying a "public safety exception" to American citizens who are terror suspects. Yeah, nobody likes a terrorist. But if a citizen is suspected of being involved in or plotting a terror attack, revoking their rights as a citizen in the name of "public safety" seems a very dangerous precedent. The danger, quite frankly, not the removal of that little script. Rather, it is the threat that seems to pose to the rights that underlie Miranda. Let's fast forward eight years to the Palin/Cuccinelli Administration. If you or I were implicated as possible terrorists, should we be stripped of our rights as citizens? You know, rights like not being indefinitely detained? Or not being [cough] encouraged to incriminate ourselves during the process of that indefinite detention? Or having the right to counsel and a speedy trial?

My sense of this is that some on the law-and-order right would be perfectly happy to have this be the case. It's all in the interests of public safety, you know.