Rights at Risk

Are Americans in the process of abandoning their rights?

Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America By David K. Shipler Knopf 400 pp.

More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” David K. Shipler’s new book, Rights at Risk, suggests Franklin’s warning may have been realized.

Shipler calls this book the “second volume” of a study of civil liberties that began with “The Rights of the People,” which concentrated on the erosion of the Fourth Amendment after 9/11. “Rights at Risk” expands on this, examining pervasive violations in the criminal, judicial, and immigration systems, and the effect this has had on America’s constitutional democracy.

Shipler begins with a comparison of police abuse of black prisoners in Chicago with the abuse of Muslim prisoners by the Central Intelligence Agency. With this parallel, he shows how a climate of fear creates the rationale in which otherwise civic-minded Americans go along with the violations of the rights of “others.”

Once we ascribe threat to groups, they exist in a state of exception and our civic commitments no longer apply.

From here, Shipler describes false confessions, coercive plea bargains, the denial of legal counsel, and the lack of constitutional protections for foreigners in immigration court. In addition to following well-known terrorism cases, like those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, John Walker Lindh, and Jose Padilla, Shipler details little known criminal and immigration cases, where rights are squashed during ordinary procedure and enforcement. One woman received a life sentence despite the fact that her lawyer had a blatant conflict of interest. A man has been on death row since 1986, when his lawyer hired a vision-impaired firearms expert who did not know how to operate the microscope needed to examine the evidence. An Iraqi refugee was jailed for failing to be registered and fingerprinted; he learned that he wasn’t required to do so from his immigration detention inmates, who knew the law better than the border agents or the government’s attorney.

In confronting so many examples of civil liberties violations, the reader is forced to consider the moral perspective of those whose rights have been compromised. This leads to the question: if we’re a rights-loving republic, why are we letting people be treated this way? As Shipler demonstrates, in times of threat, we suffer a breakdown in political empathy. By making groups threatening, we isolate them, and if their rights are diminished, it’s no concern of ours. Because fear reprioritizes our commitments and security supplants rights.

Many others have weighed in on the civil liberties debate as it pertains to questions for law, for institutions and for the very idea of America. What Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, contributes is a narrative of the everyday experiences of individuals whose rights have been curtailed. His catalog of abuses is exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, but it is the comprehensiveness of his examples that reveals how rights are eroded over time.

To Americans who have trouble imagining themselves in a situation where their rights might be violated – and have trouble sympathizing with victims, often minorities, whose rights have been trampled – Shipler reminds us that “Since constitutional rights apply to everyone, so do their violations.”

He argues that not only is dissent being thwarted by authorities, but that American students are not being taught to value civil liberties. The Bill of Rights is “in our culture but not our genetic code,” and it must be taught and exercised until it becomes habit. Furthermore, he says, it’s often schools that deny the very rights they should be teaching. In many schools, he writes, “Conformity is valued over protest, harmony over discord, even apathy over activism.” 

School and state university officials must walk the line between the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. And though students have had some success when they object to censorship, they often don’t know, or don’t care, about First Amendment freedoms. Shipler cites a survey of more than 100,000 high school students in which 83 percent said that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions” but only 51 percent agreed that “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.”

It stands to reason that knowing what your rights are is a precursor to resisting their violation. So a call for teaching them in schools seems a good step toward understanding the rights, and responsibilities, of being a free citizen. And there’s no time to waste. As Shipler concludes, “We had better begin now, for rights that are not invoked are eventually abandoned.”

Amy Rowland is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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