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Shahzad or Rudolph, U.S Citizens Have Miranda Rights

May 4, 2010

It's official: John McCain is now more addled than Glenn Beck. While the Fox News host insisted to the dismay of his colleagues that Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad "has all the rights under the Constitution," McCain declared that reading Miranda rights to an American citizen is a "serious mistake." Of course, Beck is right is that "We don't shred the Constitution when it is popular" - even for suspected terrorists and regardless of whether their sinister cause is jihad or anti-abortion violence.
While Shahzad purportedly claimed to "have acted alone," McCain wasted no time in joining Peter King, Joe Lieberman and the usual suspects in calling for the Times Square suspect to be denied his Miranda rights in the widening probe. For his part, McCain seemed ready to execute Shahzad without concern for the admissibility of evidence in the trial against him:

"There's probably about 350 different charges he's guilty of -- attempted acts of terror against the United States, attempted murder. I'm sure there's a significant number to warrant the death penalty."

Of course, the same could be said any number of American terrorists. Anti-government extremists like Timothy McVeigh and anti-abortion killers like Eric Rudolph have rights, too.
In May 2003, the FBI finally captured Eric Rudolph, the extremist fugitive behind the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing and a 1998 blast at a Birmingham family planning clinic that killed an off-duty policeman and seriously injured a nurse. Following Rudolph's apprehension, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft left no doubt that he considered Rudolph a terrorist:

"Today, Eric Robert Rudolph, the most notorious American fugitive on the FBI's 'Most Wanted' list has been captured and will face American justice. American law enforcement's unyielding efforts to capture Eric Robert Rudolph have been rewarded. Working with law enforcement nationwide, the FBI always gets their man. This sends a clear message that we will never cease in our efforts to hunt down all terrorists, foreign or domestic, and stop them from harming the innocent...
The American people, most importantly the victims of these terrorist attacks, can rest easier knowing that another alleged killer is no longer a threat."

Of course, to former Republican vice presidential candidate and conservative heartthrob Sarah Palin, the likes of Eric Rudolph, Dr. Bernard Slepien's assassin James Kopp or would-be Texas clinic bomber Paul Ross Evans don't qualify as terrorists. While even a hardline conservative like Ashcroft used the "T" word to describe Rudolph upon his arrest in 2003, during an October 2008 interview with NBC's Brian Williams Palin refused to similarly brand violent right-wing radicals as terrorists:

WILLIAMS: Is an abortion clinic bomber a terrorist, under this definition, governor?
PALIN: (Sigh). There's no question that Bill Ayers via his own admittance was one who sought to destroy our U.S. Capitol and our Pentagon. That is a domestic terrorist. There's no question there. Now, others who would want to engage in harming innocent Americans or facilities that uh, it would be unacceptable. I don't know if you're going to use the word terrorist there.

Ironically, Shelley Shannon, one of the nation's most notorious anti-abortion extremists, disagreed with Sarah Palin. In 1993, Shannon was sentenced to 10 years in a Kansas prison for shooting Dr. Tiller in both arms outside his clinic. Two years later, Shannon pled guilty to setting fires to abortion clinics in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and California. And as the New York Times recounted in 1995, Shannon was quite clear as to whether she considered her crimes terrorism:

Handcuffed and nondescript in jailhouse blues, Shelley Shannon, a housewife from rural Oregon, stood before a Federal judge here on June 7 and admitted waging a terrorism campaign against abortion clinics and doctors.

In Shannon's case, her right to remain silent thwarted the FBI's ability to unravel a broader, national anti-abortion terrorism conspiracy. As the New York Times reported in 1995, the bureau suspected she was just the tip of the iceberg, but ultimately Shannon withheld the information they needed to make her case:

Mrs. Shannon's guilty plea was not the exact ending Federal investigators had hoped for. They had wanted to coax information from her about associates in the anti-abortion movement. But after talking earlier this year, Mrs. Shannon suddenly refused to cooperate any further.
Her silence has seriously set back the Federal task force that is struggling to determine whether a nationwide criminal conspiracy exists to inflict violence on abortion doctors and clinics. The investigation has already consumed nine months, brought dozens of witnesses before two grand juries, one here and one in Alexandria, Va., and involved Federal agents around the nation.

Sixteen years later, Scott Roeder succeeded where Shelley Shannon had failed. Rev. Donald Spitz of Pro-Life Virginia called Dr. George Tiller's assassin an "American hero," a view he insisted was shared by Shelley Shannon. Shannon, he said, has been writing letters from prison encouraging people to support Roeder. As the Kansas City Star reported in August 2009, "The list of those visiting and communicating with the man accused of killing Wichita abortion provider George Tiller reads like a who's who of anti-abortion militants":

And in an interview last month, Roeder told the Star that he had visited Shannon when she was serving time in prison in Topeka for shooting Tiller. Shannon is now serving a 20-year sentence for a series of clinic bombings and arsons in the Pacific Northwest.

American citizens - even suspected terrorists - have rights. As the Shelley Shannon case showed, the Constitution doesn't magically disappear even when the defendant's legal silence slows the government's ability to disrupt future plots. That doesn't depend on whether the suspect is named Faisal Shahzad or Eric Rudolph. And it certainly doesn't matter whether the likes of John McCain or Sarah Palin believe it or not.
UPDATE: Despite the hyperbole from John McCain and others, the investigation has quickly expanded to Pakistan, where authorities have already made an arrest.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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