Guard The Rights Of Your Enemy

Three weeks ago, I wrote a column on these pages calling on conservatives to do more than simply talk about how much they revere the Constitution, but to justify and reinforce that reverence with serious, intellectual, logical arguments.

“What conservatives really need to do is more than just be right about reverence for the Constitution. That is only half of what is necessary,” I wrote, “We need to prove that we understand why we are right about that reverence.”

At the time it was a somewhat esoteric exercise directed at members of my political party, offered as generic advice.  I was, at the time, broadly referring to civil protections like the Second Amendment and religious liberty, but recent events have brought that somewhat heady argument directly into the real world.

Without understanding why the individual provisions in the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, are important, the document becomes nothing more than a set of rules which are free to be ignored if they become inconvenient.

Sadly, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, a number of Republicans immediately proved the necessity of the argument I had been making.
After spending years lecturing Democrats and the American public about the need to “obey the constitution” and blaming our lack fidelity to our founding document for virtually all the ills of modern society, too many in my party immediately began ignoring that which they have claimed to revere.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen.  The crime to which he is accused was conducted on American soil.  The degree to which we hate him, and are disgusted by the violence and horror he and his brother allegedly brought upon Boston shouldn’t matter.  He is protected by the Constitution, and should be afforded his right to remain silent, given a trial in civilian court by a jury of his peers, and provided with counsel (hopefully at his own expense).

Several Republicans disagreed.  They believe that Tsarnaev committed a terrorist act, and that the nature of his crime means, somehow, that he should not be afforded those rights and should instead be deemed an “enemy combatant”, subject to military justice.

The reasons that these Republicans, and even some Democrats wanted to do this was pretty simple.  If guilty, Tsarnaev is among the most vile, contemptible, evil people to gain the public’s attention in a long time, and they want to guarantee his conviction and punishment.  Denying him a right to remain silent, right to counsel, and other civilian protections would make that a lot easier.

But justice isn’t about ease, and protecting the civil rights of American citizens – even those with recently awarded citizenship – is not a matter of convenience or a blasé consideration.

Thankfully, the Obama administration has announced he will not be charged as an enemy combatant.

If American society is as just and righteous as it likes to fancy itself as, these are critical things that can not be lightly tossed aside.

It should be a terrifying prospect, particularly to a conservative, to allow a government to disrespect the rights of its citizens, simply because that government has decided they are guilty of something.  We can not hand out summary justice on the head of a drum and call ourselves a free society.

Think about it, an ultra-powerful government wants to pacify an outraged public and has an easy scapegoat, makes the decision that somebody is guilty, and gives itself the authority to ignore the rules meant to restrain their ability to abuse that power, and then quickly acts as judge, jury and executioner?

Those are hallmarks of the regimes we claim to abhor.  How can any political ideology that reveres the Constitution support such a thing?

Yes, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a figure worthy of our contempt.  But a desire for revenge should never replace the desire to do justice.

Thomas Paine once said, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

The Founders, which conservatives worship, were full of such wisdom.  Benjamin Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

These are philosophies to which I subscribe.  If we lower ourselves so quickly and easily to disregard the Constitution as an act of convenience, we don’t deserve our own liberty, and those who would terrorize us win.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.