Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Convention Speeches So Far: Only a Little Terror Hype

I’m proud to report being almost perfectly indifferent to the goings-on at the two political conventions. I don’t care one way or the other about Sarah Palin, though she’s obviously an interesting pick. Here’s what interests me: the rhetoric around terrorism.

Over-the-top speechifying that stokes terrorism fears at the conventions would be bad for the country because it would help perpetuate various costly overreactions and misdirected responses to terrorism. It would encourage would-be terrorists and terrorist groups by granting them more power than their capabilities merit.

I’m pleased to report that the speeches so far have been fairly muted, including Palin’s last night, for the most part. (I’ve only reviewed the presidential and vice presidential candidates’ speeches. I’m sure plenty of speakers have said unfortunate things, but they draw far less attention than the candidates.)

Senators Obama and Biden both referred to keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands - an appropriate aim, but perhaps not a significant enough threat to merit mention in a speech of this type. The consequences of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil (or anywhere) would be significant, of course, but the chance of it happening is vanishingly small.

Governor Palin indulged in a little excess as she criticized Barack Obama’s putative approach to terrorism: “Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”

It’s almost certainly true that Al Qaeda terrorists (and others) plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, but what matters more is their capability to do so. The vigilance of various agencies and people almost certainly has their capabilities in check.

I suspect that the man accused of plotting to attack the Republican convention with Molotov cocktails was a more proximate danger to “the homeland,” and he undoubtedly was read his rights.

Reading terrorists their rights, and treating them with scrupulous fairness, would help start to make them boring, and it would keep the focus on their wrongdoing. This would enervate terrorism and deprive terrorist groups of recruits and support. On these grounds alone, we should all be for reading terrorists their rights.

I’ll be watching - scratch that - I’ll check the transcript tomorrow to see if Senator McCain repeats any of his terror-hyping lines. I noted here a few weeks ago when he declared himself a follower of Osama bin Laden.

It’s an exciting line - “I will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell” - but it is a singularly foolish thing to say. It suggests that, as president, McCain would be owned by bin Laden.

I hope Senator McCain charts his own rhetorical course, rather than the one terrorists might like him to follow.

Florida High Court Defeats Threat to its Sovereignty

With barely a moment’s reflection, the Florida Supreme Court has stricken two amendment questions from the state’s November ballot. The first would have allowed religious institutions to participate in state programs, subject to the limits imposed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The second would have overturned a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that essentially forbids the legislature from creating any alternative education programs alongside the required public school system.

The written decision has yet to be published, but whatever it says, it will be hard not to see this ruling as the latest turf battle between the Court and the voters – with the Court coming out on top yet again. This is bad news for Florida families, whose elected representatives will continue to have their hands tied on education policy.

When it comes to education in Florida, the state’s high court has asserted its sovereignty, and seems earnestly dedicated to preserving it. First it shackled the people of Florida to their troubled public school system, and now it has taped their mouths shut so that they cannot overturn its decision.

Speedy Trial?

Joseph Shepard sat in local jails for almost two years on drug related charges.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he’s a man the system forgot–ignored by prosecutors, judges, and his own attorney. (Via How Appealing).

In North Carolina, the Courts have ruled that the busier the state gets, the more we need to forget about the constitutional rule requiring speedy trials.  And the drug war makes the courthouse a very busy place indeed.

TSA: Not Even Good at Getting it Wrong

Bruce Schneier has a very good op-ed on the Transportation Security Administration’s airport security programs in the Los Angeles Times today. The winner line: “That’s the TSA: Not doing the right things. Not even doing right the things it does.”

In fairness, security is hard. By their nature, federal agencies aren’t smart and nimble. I argued that the TSA should be scrapped in a March, 2005 Reason magazine debate.

Justice Dept Backs Up After KPMG Ruling

The New York Times reports that the Justice Dept. is rolling back its bullying tactic of penalizing companies that reimburse their employees’ legal fees during investigations and trials.  This move is mostly show–to make the feds seem reasonable and open to suggestions.  But it is really just a reaction to the department’s defeat in today’s KPMG case (pdf) and a lame attempt to stave off legislation that would be more meaningful and permanent.

Attorney Richard Janis details these issues in this new Cato report.

For still more background, go here, here, and here.

Joe Biden and Limited Government

Barack Obama and Joe Biden both get a perfect 100 from the big-government liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which probably tells you all you need to know. But I remember a dramatic moment back in 1991 when Biden made his commitment to unlimited government clear and dramatic. Clarence Thomas had been nominated for the Supreme Court, and Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was questioning him. Biden bore in on the possibility that Thomas might believe in “natural law,” the idea, as Tony Mauro of USA Today summarized it, that “everyone is born with God-given rights - referred to in the Declaration of Independence as ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - apart from what any law or the Constitution grants.” Biden singled out Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein and Cato author Stephen Macedo and demanded to know if Thomas agreed with them that the Constitution protects property rights. Waving Epstein’s book Takings in the air like Joe McCarthy with a list of communists, Biden demanded to know, as we very loosely paraphrased it in Cato’s 25-year Annual Report (pdf; page 14), “Are you now or have you ever been a libertarian?” As most judicial nominees do when pursued by a senator roused to defend his power like a mama bear, Thomas assured Senator Biden that he wouldn’t take the Constitution too seriously. Here’s Biden on the warpath:

Was Biden right to worry? Well, as we said in the Annual Report, four years later Thomas joined the Court in declaring, “We start with first principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of limited powers.” But ten years later the Court finally considered whether the Constitution protects property rights and said, “Ehh, not so much.” Thomas protested, “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.” Biden was right to worry that Thomas’s understanding of individual rights and the Constitution just might put some limits on the power of government.