Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Pray the cops find you first

Three men were arrested in Ohio and charged Tuesday with conspiring to commit terrorism.

This is good news on several fronts: we foiled a plot, caught the suspects, and did it all as part of the *criminal* justice system, with due process and respect for civil liberties. No warrantless eavesdropping or "enemy combatant" designation required.

We could leave it there: case closed, chalk one up for the good guys. But follow me through a hypothetical to illustrate why we need a unified set of rules for the war on terror, not the mishmash we're currently using.

These guys were tracked by local law enforcement, who gathered evidence against them and then, when the time was right, moved in and arrested them. The fruit of that came Tuesday, when they were charged with crimes. They will be able to dispute the charges; if the charges are weak, they will be let go -- as they should. But if the charges withstand scrutiny, the three will be going to prison for a long time.

So here's my hypothetical: what if the men were not caught in Ohio, but in Iraq -- in a raid by the U.S. military?

In that case, the men would have been tracked by the military, who gathered evidence against them and then, when the time was right, moved in and grabbed them. The men then would have fallen into the murky world of military prisons, where they could be held for months without charge or the ability to challenge their detention.

Or try this not-so-hypothetical example:

A U.S. citizen is a passenger in a taxi that is stopped at a checkpoint and searched. The taxi's trunk turns out to be full of washing-machine timers -- often used to make remote-control bombs. The passenger denies knowledge of the timers; the taxi driver admits they're his.

If this scenario happens in the States, the passenger is afforded full due process -- a lawyer, speedy trial, the right to challenge the charges, etc.

If this scenario happens in Iraq, the passenger once again disappears into the murky world of military prisons.

This makes little sense. The passenger's crime is the same in both cases and he should be treated the same in both cases; His rights should not depend upon which arm of the government happens to search the taxi.

A clear dividing line is needed. If you shoot at U.S. troops, you're a combatant and subject to military rules. Otherwise, you're a civilian and subject to criminal law.

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