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Friday, July 13, 2012

Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in America by David K. Shipler

Highly Recommended

Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2012

Last summer I read David K.Shipler's first book on this topic, The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (see my review by clicking here) and I found it to be the most profound book I read that summer and maybe all year. I began my review of that book with this thought:

"I always tell people that the traditional left-right continuum used to describe someone's politics is so inaccurate as to be useless. Really, what is the difference between an aging hippie living on a hill somewhere  raising some dope for personal use and telling the government to get out of his business and a Barry Goldwater-type conservative (like me) living by himself on a hill somewhere that tells the government to get its nose out of his business? Some dope. Otherwise, they are both determined advocates of civil liberties - keep out of my business if it is not hurting anyone else."

When I read the first book I was expecting to get a snoot full of political commentary that I disagreed with from a New York Times reporter with a left-wing agenda. To be blunt, I was expecting one of those political attack books that Al Franken, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and David Limbaugh produce with regularity (Well, Al Franken is busy being a Senator now so I suppose he has stopped). Instead, I found the book to be politically balanced and quite remarkable. This book is just as remarkable, if a little less balanced by the inclusion of a half-dozen snide comments that should have been edited out, in my opinion.

Rights at Risk focuses on multiple topics but here are the chapter titles (with descriptions): Torture and Torment (being abused while being investigated), Confessing Falsely (how some people, especially young people and the mentally impaired, are tricked into confessions), The Assistance of Counsel (the defense side of the trial), The Tilted Playing Field (the prosecution side of the trial), Below the Law (the lack of rights of immigrants, legal and illegal), Silence and Its Opposite (freedom of speech in turbulent times), A Redress of Grievances (spying on protesters, "free speech zones") and Inside the Schoolhouse Gate (freedoms of students and teachers).

Torture and Torment includes a discussion of jailhouse torture such as physically abusing suspects and CIA torture. It demonstrates that the famed water-boarding sessions have poisoned several other cases. The good news in the cases of the police abuse is that the system, in the cases Shipler cited, mostly worked to flush out the bad cops. Mostly, but not always. A weaker part of Shipler's argument comes from the discussion of people wanted for trial in America but arrested in foreign countries. He argues, correctly, that many countries do not offer any protection for defendants. But, his arguments are not as tight here and led me to the inevitable conclusion that anyone who confesses to a crime in a foreign country can just claim that they were tortured into confessing and the confession should be dropped. Arrested in Luxembourg? Claim torture and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The chapter entitled Confessing Falsely is quite interesting. Shipler discusses the various training methods police learn on how to question suspects and how those very methods can lead to false arrest and false trials and leave the real criminals out on the streets. He also writes about instances in which the rights of the accused were short-circuited in order to facilitate a confession. He includes a recommendations for how to address these problems, including the videotaping of all interrogations and prohibiting the questioning of children without the presence of his or lawyer or a parent.

You know the old adage, "You get what you pay for?" Well, the chapter The Assistance of Counsel was disturbing because it proves it. Public defenders in areas that have professional public defender offices are overwhelmed. In states and locales that have court-appointed public defenders from the general ranks of area defense attorneys there are serious issues of quality. Shipler encountered judges that admit to appointing certain defense attorneys over and over because they don't fuss much in court. Others appoint lots and lots of cases to their political contributors. Those attorneys make a good living on the sheer volume of these cases. But, appointing cases based on these criteria is not a solid foundation for justice. On top of that, court-appointed defenders have almost no budget for experts and in most cases, there are no funds available for appeals. It really is stacked against poor defendants.

The Tilted Playing Field looks at all of the tools the government has to coerce cooperation, including threats of deportation, violation of probation, plea bargaining and asset forfeiture. I was disturbed by the practice of sentencing based on parts of the case that were dismissed. For example, if you have a gun illegally and are brought up on charges of trafficking drugs and are found not guilty of the drug charge, some courts will still sentence you more severely for the gun charge because of the drug charge, that you were acquitted of.

Below the Law discusses the status of legal and illegal immigrants in the justice system. To be blunt, they don't have much status. I was especially disturbed to discover that a great number of immigration judges have no particular experience in immigration law except for a single short class with an online quiz taken the next day (page 144). This makes for poor justice when the judge is not an expert. Would you go to probate court with a judge who know next to nothing about wills? The case of the political refugee who was arrested for not having his papers and was on the deportation list is especially disturbing. Luckily, the refugee learned from other detainees that he did not need papers as a refugee. He told his attorney who educated both the prosecutor and the judge on this legal point. They were directed to a page on their own website that explained the law. (pages 184-5)

The chapter Redress of Grievances demonstrates that we spend an awful lot of time spying on groups that exercise their right to protest. While most of these groups would be silly to spy on, Shipler seems that there would never be a need to look at any of these groups at all. I don't know where the line is, but it is clear that some law enforcement groups are over-zealous and act spitefully towards protesters. For example, the Maryland State Police surveilled an anti-death penalty group and listed some of its members in an anti-terrorism database despite having no evidence of a crime. (page 229) In at least one case, Shipler does hurt his own argument. He notes the famed WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 (nicknamed the "Battle in Seattle" by some) one page and argues that the Washington, D.C, police had no reason to be worried about planned demonstrations against World Bank and the IMF meetings six months later. (pages 234-236) Shipler ends the chapter with a long discussion on flag-burning, which has been ruled legal for a long time and is still news to some and the Westboro Baptist Church protesters.

Inside the Schoolhouse Gate was the most interesting chapter for me because I am a teacher. It is a maxim that students have the right to express political opinions. But, since attendance at school is compulsory, it is also a maxim that you have the right to attend school and not be harassed. For example, is a Malcolm X t-shirt a threat to white students? Is a Hank Williams, Jr. t-shirt with a Confederate flag on it a threat to black students? Are both, or neither, disruptive to school so that teaching becomes difficult? Can high school newspapers be censored by their schools? (page 274, 278-9) Even worse, in my mind are the speech codes  at universities and designated "free speech zones," especially on public university campuses. Silly me, I thought the entire country was a free speech zone. I suppose we don't want students to discover new and different thoughts while being educated...

Shipler concludes with this thought: "If every American school taught the Bill of Rights in a clear and compelling way, if every child knew the fundamental rules that guide the relationships between the individual and the state, then every citizen would eventually feel the reflexive need to resist every violation. We had better begin now, for rights that are not invoked are eventually abandoned."

As a social studies teacher, I wholeheartedly agree and I worry because we are cutting those very classes across the country in order to make sure we pass the math and English standardized tests. The school I taught in last year cut 20% of the social studies classes in the third 9 weeks in order to provide more time for  English practice (language arts stuff, not English for non-English speakers) with a prescribed, decidedly non-social studies curriculum. I wonder what was cut?

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Rights at Risk.

Reviewed on July 13, 2012.

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