A few days ago, I tried to persuade a friend to take the bus with me to run some errands off campus. The reluctant response I got was one I’ve been hearing since my first visit to USC.
“Dude. There are some really sketchy people around here.”
I won’t attempt to deny that the South Los Angeles neighborhood punctuated by our red brick-and-ivy campus is not exactly the Hamptons. But I can’t get past the idea that it gets a worse rap than it necessarily deserves because it’s a working-class community, and maybe it’s different from what we were used to at home. We judge it for that. Unfortunately, we tend to apply the same preconceptions to people.
When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Nigerian Christmas Day bomber, was taken into federal custody, it didn’t take long for Republicans to start blasting the way the government treated him, which they felt was lenient and not appropriate when addressing a terrorist threat to national security.
Abdulmutallab’s case has been handled judiciously and within the confines of the law. Still, many feel that it is not good enough for a situation such as this.
The reason for our discomfort is obvious: Abdulmutallab is a terrorist, and terrorist attacks often make us so nervous as to forget that we are a nation that tries every individual fairly and by the same set of laws.
America’s fear of foreigners, especially Muslims — a xenophobia found close to home, as well — often causes us to try to ignore the very rights and liberties that we claim separate us from them.
The obstructionist-type critics who have condemned the Obama administration’s handling of the incident have been so eager to protect our country from people like Abdulmutallab that they have overlooked a lack of constitutional basis for their claims.
Consider their main arguments: The defendant was to be tried in a civilian court, not a military one, and that he was read his Miranda rights.
Let’s take a moment here.
Abdulmutallab is a civilian accused of breaking civilian law on U.S. territory. He didn’t perform a military attack, he wasn’t arrested by the military and he’s not a prisoner of war. There is no constitutional reason that he shouldn’t be tried in a civilian court. This comes down to a case of Republicans trying to push him off into the military system in an attempt to work around the civil rights he would be afforded otherwise.
Miranda rights apply to every defendant accused under our court of law, whether they be terrorists or shoplifters. They can’t be suspended simply because a particular individual makes us more nervous than others. This is a crucial part of our nation’s legal system. It’s what sets us apart from Iran or China — that the person in custody is afforded his basic human rights, no matter who he is, where he’s from or what he’s done.
Our nation prides itself on being unique, on representing fairness and equality. Why not put to use these laws that we are so passionate about defending? Abdulmutallab’s failed attack on Northwest Flight 253, foiled by a defective homemade detonator, was well-documented, with a plane full of witnesses and a syringe full of evidence.
Even in a fair and impartial trial, Miranda rights and all, he is likely to be convicted. And a conviction in such a manner is an opportunity to reinstate in the world’s eyes the idea that, regardless of the background or crimes of the accused, we play by the rules we’ve set for ourselves. To call for unlawful treatment of Abdulmutallab is a waste of that opportunity, recalling instead the less constitutionally supported treatment of prisoners such as those in Guantanamo Bay.
In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, defended the federal government’s conduct, declaring, “we reacted very well to that situation. He was then put into a process that has been the same process that we have used for every other terrorist who has been captured on our soil — whether they be U.S. citizens or non-U.S. citizens.”
This last addendum to his statement is an acknowledgment of the fact that prejudice against foreigners is definitely a pathological issue in cases such as these.
Race and religion are key factors in the critical response that has surrounded Abdulmutallab’s treatment. There’s little point in denying that we as a society get more nervous and demand harsher treatment of an accused terrorist when he’s Muslim.
When Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, an exhaustive search for the culprit ended in a shocked and confused nation being handed U.S. Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, an Irish Catholic from New York. People had heard the word “terrorism” and automatically looked toward the vague, frightening population of non-white, non-Christian outsiders.
No one demanded that McVeigh’s Miranda rights be suspended.
Brennan was right to defend the actions of our government in this instance. “Counterterrorism professionals deserve the support of our Congress … rather than [Congress] second-guessing what they’re doing on the ground.”
Those professionals acted constitutionally, and any complaints that they did not are the result of either a bias against foreign nationals or the exploitation of that fear for partisan purposes — what Brennan referred to as the “political football” that Republican critics are currently tossing around.
The federal government should be congratulated for conducting Abdulmutallab’s case in a fair and unbiased way, in spite of our painful history with — and nervousness around, — people of his religious background and inclinations. In order to be a nation of equality that we claim to be, we must ensure that the same constitutional rights are granted to every defendant in our court of law, whether we feel safe around them or not.
Kastalia Medrano is a freshman majoring in print journalism.