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Terrorism shouldn't change our values

Some have argued against reading accused would-be car bomber Faisal Shahzad his Miranda rights. But terrorism does not justify compromising our values by using tactics that fall outside the law.

May 05, 2010

Are shoe bombers and car bombers facts of American life now? Sadly, they probably are, just as school shootings, gang violence and the occasional rampage by a knife-wielding mental patient at Target are lamentable features of contemporary society. Citizen vigilance and the incompetence of would-be bombers have spared American lives on a couple of occasions now, most recently in Times Square. Nimble police work and improved coordination among law enforcement agencies have saved untold more. Those successes are a reminder of what works in combatting violence, whether it is generated on the streets of Los Angeles or in the caves of Afghanistan. They are the appropriate responses of a society in which civil liberties are a source of strength, not weakness, and  in which effective law enforcement coexists with respect for privacy and personal freedom.

Britain lived with Irish Republican Army attacks for decades while fighting an urban war over Northern Ireland, just as Israel has faced decades of bloodletting by militants over its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Both countries have struggled to balance policing and democracy. The 9/11 attacks preceded the United States' war in Afghanistan, and it is debatable whether ending U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan would eliminate the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists who see the West as the enemy. But certainly these attempts will continue while we are engaged in this kind of prolonged war.

The arrest of a suspect in the Times Square attempt is a testament to excellent police work. Faisal Shahzad was captured at New York's Kennedy Airport after he had boarded a flight to Dubai. Nonetheless, some commentators seized on the attempted car bombing as further proof of an Obama administration failure to advance in a global war on terrorism; Republican Rep. Peter King of New York and Sen. John McCain of Arizona argued against reading Shahzad his Miranda rights, even though he is a naturalized U.S. citizen detained in the United States. Critics should take a deep breath. Even terrorism does not justify this and other aggressive tactics that fall outside the law, such as torture and warrantless wiretapping. Fortunately, Shahzad was read his rights after being questioned for an undetermined period under a public safety exception.

A suicide bomb or car bomb is intended to take lives, of course, but its greater purpose is to instill an incapacitating fear in the survivors and a repressive overreaction on the part of society that somehow serves as warped justification for the original attack. If that happens, a Nigerian on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, or a Pakistani-American who allegedly bought the SUV that was left in Times Square can succeed even when his bombs fail.

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