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July 26, 2010

The new enemy

by Sarah Harper, Online News Editor
The federal government is tasked with providing for a common defense and ensuring the rights of citizens, but what happens when these two principles conflict? Should national security be favored over personal liberty, or vice versa? This was the debate behind the case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

Defendant Eric H. Holder (far right), current Attorney General of the United States, during a Senate Judiciary Hearing. Courtesy of Getty Images
Defendant Eric H. Holder (far right), current Attorney General of the United States, during a Senate Judiciary Hearing.
The case was formed nearly ten years ago, after the U.S. Patriot Act made it illegal to give "material support" to terrorist groups. “Expert advice” – that is, peace talks and military training – was included as a type of material support. As a result, humanitarian organizations were no longer permitted to associate with terrorists directly, or educate terrorist leaders on peaceful negotiating and conflict resolution. Private aid groups called for a reexamination of the law, claiming it violates free speech rights.

Then, roughly one month ago on June 21, the Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6-3 vote. The ruling will have a profound impact on the War on Terror, having stripped away fundamental instruments of non-violent communication and human aid groups. The case brief implied the ban on expert advice was a preventive measure – that political advocacy is as dangerous as military training when dealing with terrorists. Under these implications of "prevention," the law resembles a wartime regulation akin to censorship.

Flip through our history and a trend becomes apparent. The U.S. has a running streak of violating basic constitutional rights to ensure domestic safety during periods of war. Mass public fear tends to eclipse any overstepping of the Constitution. But terrorism is a mutated war, in which the enemy has no single face to identify. Isolated incidents of terror are ongoing and unpredictable. The players are constantly shifting.

As a result, the public is detached from the war. And without a common enemy uniting the country, the government cannot get away with infringing on personal liberties. But that is precisely what the Supreme Court has done.

In trial, the First Amendment holds preferred position, which means that certain human rights – freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and so on – must be held above others. The decision in Holder to disregard preferred position, to choose national security over constitutionality, suggests that the Supreme Court felt it necessary to take preventive action against terrorism. But that was not the issue at hand.

Holder was meant to be a question of constitutionality, nothing more. There was a possibility that repealing the law could increase terrorist forces, though the situation seems unlikely. Even so, the Supreme Court should not be putting the consequences of its decision above its responsibility to provide judicial review. The court's indifference toward the free speech rights of humanitarian organizations is appalling, and the minute the political system sees fit to do away with principles and rights that have kept this country alive, the American people should be on their feet with outrage. In the eyes of the government, initiating peace instruction is now the same as providing Hezbollah with guns. Not only does the law permit the prosecution of any citizen giving expert advice, but it also will hinder open dialogue and reconciliation with terrorist groups in the future. Long-term, upholding the ban will damage our own national security interests, as well as undermine personal liberty.

From a foreign policy standpoint, without a reversal of the Holder ruling, the U.S. can easily become its own worst enemy.

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  • roonil wazlib on July 31, 2010 at 2:23 PM
    yeah sarah! :)
  • Self on July 31, 2010 at 10:03 PM
    Not saying you're right or wrong, but I don't see the connection between taking away our personal liberties guaranteed in the first amendment and this case. This is affecting direct dealings with an enemy we are currently at war with, and it is not at all unusual that the government ban helping the enemy. You can say all you want- like right here, you're going directly against their decision, using freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Going out and talking to terrorists could help the enemy (I don't know, they could capture you and torture you for information about how to get to the pentagon, idk) and the government has a right to stop that to protect its people. Uh so I guess I am saying you're wrong xD
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