A Suicide Pact

Can the U.S. afford the Bill of Rights?

Earlier this week the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published one of the more astounding documents of our age. It was written by Joaquin “the Hatchet” Zapata-a notorious enforcer for the Zetas drug cartel, which controls much of the cocaine trade across the border of southern Texas.

Resembling nothing so much as an army field manual for mules and midlevel traffickers, the “Instrucciones” on shipping cocaine include a lengthy section on what to do if captured by U.S. authorities. Going into great detail about the legal rights of criminal defendants in America, it advises couriers to clam up, ask for an attorney, claim irregularities in the search (the exclusionary rule won’t allow tainted evidence in court), and so on.

Naturally, right-wingers have jumped on the story. “The pendulum has swung too far in the narcoterrorists’ favor,” intoned GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. Michele Bachmann demanded that Democrats join Republicans in rolling back any “technicalities” that work in the drug lords’ favor.

As usual, Sarah Palin went further than most: “The Constitution of this great country of ours that I love so much is not some kind of suicide deal,” she said (misquoting the late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson), “and that is why I am urging our Congress today to repeal back the Fourth”-i.e., to draw a blue line through the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Palin is right. If drug dealers are exploiting our freedoms, then we no longer can afford them. Right?

Ha! Only kidding. None of that really happened. (Had you there for a second though, right?)

As you may have guessed by now, the foregoing is a rather ham-fisted parable. There are no Instrucciones, and Republicans have not been waving them about as proof that America should repeal the Bill of Rights.

Yet we are hearing just that sort of argument-in nature, if not in degree-from progressives right now.
Several days ago Adam Gadahn, an American-born spokesman for Al Qaeda, urged would-be jihadists to buy guns at gun shows: “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” he said. “You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

Within a couple of femtoseconds, progressive America began quoting Gadahn as proof that the U.S. needs to close the gun-show loophole. “There may never be a better spokesman” for doing so than Gadahn, opined The Washington Post-echoed by ThinkProgress, the New York Daily News, the Brady Campaign, and countless others.

This has to qualify as the Mount Everest of non sequiturs. The “loophole,” as it is called, refers to the fact that private citizens who are not licensed gun dealers can sell their guns without conducting background checks-not only at gun shows, but anywhere. There are some sound arguments for closing the gun-show loophole, and there are some sound arguments for not closing it, and anyone who has followed the debate is familiar with most of them.

There are also some stupid arguments on both sides. Contending that the loophole should be closed because it might redound to the benefit of terrorists has to be one of the stupidest. Many of those making it simply cite Gadahn’s words alone as sufficient proof-as though it were intuitively obvious that any policy potentially useful to Al Qaeda must be repealed at once.

If so, then Congress will be very busy. Because the so-called loophole is not the only policy potentially useful to Al Qaeda. So are a great many others. Among them: habeas corpus, which the Supreme Court reaffirmed in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld; the Fourth Amendment and its various progeny, such as the unique-to-America exclusionary rule; Miranda guarantees; the FISA court, which (some say) hamstrings counterintelligence efforts; and so on.

Indeed, during the Bush years you heard a lot of talk along just such lines: Many conservatives argued with perfectly straight faces that the blood of a hundred-thousand innocent people would be on the hands of anyone who let constitutional scruples get in the way of hunting terrorists down. Dissenting in Boumediene v. Bush, for example, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lamented that upholding the habeas rights of alleged enemy combatants “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”

Well. After the High Court struck down a Chicago gun-control law last year, The New York Times-which praised recognizing the habeas rights of suspected terrorists-condemned recognizing the Second Amendment rights of American citizens. The arguments in the Chicago ruling, it lamented, “were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real and bloody.”

Constraints upon government meant to protect the innocent sometimes end up protecting the guilty as well. That is one of the prices we pay for our liberties, and in that regard Justice Jackson was wrong. In some ways, the Constitution is a suicide pact: We accept the dangers of liberty in return for not living in a police state.

Or at least that is how it is supposed to work. People tend to want to carve out exceptions, though. So while liberals and conservatives don’t agree on much, they do agree on this: American lives are far too precious to squander in defense of any item of the Bill of Rights cherished by the other side.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.