So-Called “Criminals’ Rights” Protect the Rest of Us

After the Providence Journal printed Chad Nelson’s commentary on Boston’s violations of Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure protections (“Marathon Security Violates Constitution” April 20), reader Rick Hawksley responded in a letter to the editor that Nelson “seemed to be more concerned about drug dealers than with the health and welfare of his neighbors.”

The sharp escalation of the Drug War, the War on Terrorism and other wars on the American domestic population has been associated with an equally sharp growth in general cultural authoritarianism. This includes popular media in which, in Richard Moore’s words (“Escaping the Matrix,” Whole Earth, Summer 2000), “‘rights’ are a joke, the accused are despicable sociopaths, and no criminal is ever brought to justice until some noble cop or prosecutor bends the rules a bit.”

It always galled me to hear the opening sequence of Law and Order, in which the narrator sanctimoniously intoned that “in the criminal justice system, there are two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.First, I always protested that that should be “the accused,” not “the offenders” — even if some self-styled “tough on crime” types don’t seem to understand the difference. And second, what about the defense attorneys and juries, who — even in the naive civics book understanding of the “criminal justice” system — are supposed to represent society by preventing crooked cops and prosecutors from railroading people into prison based on false accusations, perjured testimony from jailhouse snitches, and fabricated or planted evidence?

Mr. Hawksley’s letter is as glaring an example of this loathsome cultural trend as any I’ve seen.

It’s a standard trope among right-wing “law and order” types to equate procedural protections against cops with protection of the alleged criminals they’re in pursuit of, or to equate due process rights to “criminal rights” (see also “Grace, Nancy”). No, Mr. Hawksley. They protect the rest of us. Nelson clearly desires that his neighbors be safe from warrantless invasion of their homes by trigger-happy cops, under the ostensible guise of fighting “terrorism” or “drugs.”

A lot more Americans — unarmed Americans — have been shot by trigger-happy cops in the past year, or had their faces repeatedly slammed into the concrete (“Stop resisting! Stop resisting”) after they were incapacitated, than were killed by terrorists. The stories seem to be appearing almost daily now about an unarmed person of color being shot by the police — sometimes while trying to surrender, sometimes in the back while fleeing, and sometimes with the cop planting evidence on their dead body after murdering them.

Like Mr. Hawksley, I want to feel safe. I figure my chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are nearly zilch. And even if the danger were significant, the kinds of “security” measures Hawksley celebrates are mostly Security Theater — useless because they generate a thousand false positives for every genuine threat that’s identified. I’m not afraid of terrorism. But even though I’m white, every time I see a police car in my rear-view mirror I’m afraid. Can you honestly say you’re not?

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