View all Articles
Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Bum ‘Rights’ Rap

Economics, Economics, Cities Immigration

Human-rights groups began criticizing America’s war on terrorism immediately after 9/11 and haven’t stopped complaining since. Their criticisms can seem unfathomably ignorant until you grasp one crucial fact: Left-wing rights organizations don’t appear to acknowledge that 9/11 even happened.

Take the most recent diatribe against U.S. self-defense: Amnesty International’s recent report on the detention of illegal immigrants picked up after 9/11. Throughout the report, Amnesty puts “terrorist” in quotes, to signal the group’s ironic detachment from the term.

If you can’t bring yourself to use the word “terrorist” non-ironically, there is indeed much about recent government actions that will look arbitrary or discriminatory.

After 9/11, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were flooded with thousands of tips on possible terrorist activity. They concluded that the vast majority involved no suspicious or unlawful behavior, and closed those cases. But a tiny fraction of those leads did cause the INS to pick up the suspect for violation of immigration or criminal law and put him in detention pending further investigation.

In all, about 1,200 illegal aliens have been detained for some period of time since 9/11; less than 250 are still being held, most on immigration charges, and some as potential witnesses to terrorist activity.

Amnesty can’t understand this. It is not “usual,” it complains, to detain someone for what it calls “minor immigration infractions.”

Yes, an illegal alien usually remains free until deportation. But the 9/11 attacks weren’t usual. They required an unprecedented response, in order to protect Americans from future devastation. And so the INS used its legal authority to detain a minuscule subset of deportable aliens whom the FBI wanted to investigate for possible terrorist connections.

Few of the detainees have criminal records, complains Amnesty. Well, neither did Mohamed Atta and his cronies.

Through innuendo and obfuscation, the Amnesty report tries to make the 9/11 detentions seem scary and illegal. In fact, the INS has the authority to detain an illegal deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety pending deportation. The detainees have been able to challenge their imprisonment through habeas corpus petitions, thus availing themselves of the most fundamental due process right: judicial review.

Amnesty and its sister groups, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, are also incensed that some post-9/11 detentions have lasted months. “When it comes to immigration violations, the law provides one remedy: [immediate] deportation,” huffed Donna Liebermann, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, at a recent forum. “It does not prescribe indefinite detention until the government is good and ready to let someone go.”

In fact, immigration law allows the Justice Department and the INS leeway in timing deportations, to accommodate ongoing criminal or terrorist investigations. Since terrorists are not wont to publicize their activities, it is hardly surprising that a probe may take months or even years to conclude.

The rights lobby is just as up in arms about the secrecy surrounding the detentions. The government has not released the names of the detainees, and the hearings in many cases have been closed to the public (but not to the alien’s attorney). Though such secrecy is allowed, the anti-government advocates can think of no possible justification for it.

How about this: After 9/11, it is critical that we protect all sources of intelligence and not let our mortal enemies know whom we have in custody.

And the post-9/11 detainees are free to call up the press and announce: “I’m here,” or have their attorneys and families do so. Yet most choose to remain anonymous, for the very same reason that Amnesty International itself chose not to name people it knows to be in detention: to protect their privacy.

Nothing so outrages the civil libertarians and rights advocates as the fact that most of the detainees are Muslims from the Middle East or South Asia. “Why,” asks Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, is the government “discriminating in this manner?”

Earth to Roth: Because we were struck by a terrorist group that defines itself by religious and regional identity. Not by proponents of Danish sovereignty or Italian workers’ rights or British hunting privileges, but by radical Muslims out to vindicate radical Muslim interests in the Middle East.

The rights lobby argues that only American racism explains why al Qaeda suspects in custody are predominantly from Muslim countries known to breed terrorists. Wrong culprit: The lobby should take its beef to Osama bin Ladin and ask why he doesn’t open up his group to Swedish Lutherans.

Such highly politicized and error-filled criticism of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts devalues human-rights advocacy. Amnesty has done vital work on behalf of prisoners of conscience, but it undermines its own credibility when it claims that letting 9/11 detainees exercise only in the early morning is a human-rights violation.

Individual law-enforcement officers may have committed some procedural irregularities in the terrible aftermath of 9/11. But Amnesty and its fellows fail to show any constitutional or international law violations. In condemning the government for taking lawful actions to protect its citizens from catastrophic attack, these civil-rights defenders appear to have lost all touch with reality.