Dead to rights: Altmire's terror bill subverts respect for citizenship

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In criminal proceedings, citizens of the United States are guaranteed their rights by the Constitution. Any chipping away of this bedrock principle should invite alarm -- and never mind any high-minded excuse offered by the government, even if it involves national security.

The threat is not fanciful. In 2002 the Bush administration, with the best of intentions, declared Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn, an "enemy combatant" and, without charging him with terrorism after his arrest in Chicago, held him in isolation in a Navy brig for 3 1/2 years.

It was only when the Supreme Court appeared it might rule definitively on the flagrant unconstitutional denial of his rights as a citizen that he was charged and eventually convicted of terror-related activities. Jose Padilla was no innocent, but the suspension of due process in his case -- and the dismissal of his citizenship as an irrelevant trifle -- sent a shiver through the spine of anyone who cared about constitutional protections.

That shiver now returns with a bill introduced by a bipartisan quartet of lawmakers, including Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., to broaden the reasons that U.S. citizenship can be stripped from terror suspects. It seeks to update a bill passed in 1940 by adding those citizens who provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization or who engage in or support hostilities against the United States or its allies.

Currently, native-born or naturalized citizens who, with the intention of relinquishing U.S. nationality, serve in the armed services of a foreign state engaged in hostilities against the United States are included on the seven-item list of those who can be stripped of their citizenship.

This bill -- HR 5237 -- was in the works before the case of Pakistan-born U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad, accused of leaving the explosive-laden car in Times Square, and will not affect it. Still, the incident does provide context and a lesson. Treating this suspect like a citizen did not stop him from confessing.

In arguing for the change, Sen. Lieberman said, "We're fighting an enemy who doesn't wear the uniform of a conventional army or follow the law of war." True enough, but a murky situation is not helped by disrespecting the rights of citizenship.

Rep. Altmire said, "Individuals who actively support terrorist organizations dedicated to harming our nation do not deserve to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship." And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, head of the department that would judge Americans according to the overly broad words of this bill, said: "United States citizenship is a privilege -- it is not a right."

Memo to both: A driver's license is a privilege. Citizenship, whether attained by birth or naturalization, is sanctioned by the Constitution, the guarantor of the rights of citizens. That document does not have an asterisk on the people's rights saying, "Not applicable to alleged enemy combatants." This constitutionally dubious legislation promotes fear, not security.


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