information that would prevent a terrorist attack? Some countries readily answer “yes” to this question.
The United States is a nation of laws, as lawmakers are fond of reminding us. And those laws are adequate to face terrorist threats. The newly signed U.S.A. Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation that grants law enforcement agencies broad surveillance powers to help agents thwart terrorist attacks, provides adequate preventative measures that will help the country deal with suspected terrorists. Some argue this expanded authority violates longstanding privacy protections, but reading e-mails or listening in on phone calls is a far cry from beating a confession out of a suspect or injecting a reticent witness with psychotropic drugs.
These questions are not merely academic, as many average Americans look for answers to their own anxiety surrounding terrorism. An About.com online poll showed 44 percent of respondents favor torturing terrorist suspects in all circumstances. While an almost equal number, 40 percent, say suspects should never be tortured, the fact support for torture is so high is disturbing.
The Fifth Amendment protects against involuntary self-incrimination, including coerced and forced confessions. The Supreme Court has routinely prohibited police and federal agents from torturing or drugging suspects to elicit information from them no matter the extenuating circumstances. These limits are in place for good reason.
The U.S. government has arrested, or requested the arrests, of almost 1,000 people worldwide as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of those people are held overseas under other countries detention beyond the reach of the Constitution’s protections. But those detained in the United States are granted the same rights afforded all Americans. With so many detained for an amazingly wide variety of reasons, chances are that some had no role in the Sept. 11 attacks. These people do not deserve to be tortured for an immigration law violation or another minor infraction, no matter how suspicious their actions are.
Chief among the many things that make the United States a great nation is our willingness to choose what is right over what is expedient. Many have said the American system of government is the envy of the world, but it cannot remain so if we become that which we hate most an arbitrary, uncaring regime that terrorizes suspects in the name of justice.