Because I Was Not a Terrorist…

Dzhokhar TsarnaevEveryone knows Martin Niemoller’s “First they came for the communists…” poem. These days, we mostly hear it from conservatives because it is based on the slippery slope argument that is so beloved on the right. But I think the poem is fundamentally wrong; oppression doesn’t happen that way.

I was thinking about this yesterday while reading Glenn Greenwald. He was writing about some reporting in the Los Angeles Times that quoted an anonymous source who said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev repeatedly asked for a lawyer and was refused “since he was being questioned under the public safety exemption to the Miranda rule.” This is a big deal if it is true. It is one thing to not tell a suspect his rights, it is quite another to withhold those rights. And there is nothing in the public safety exemption of the Miranda rule that allows the government to refuse a suspect his right to representation for hours or even days.

And that’s what got me thinking about the Niemoller quote. It is not that we don’t speak up for the “communists” because we are not one. It is that we don’t speak up for them because we hate them. I know the reaction of the vast majority of people in this country to my belief that Tsarnaev deserves all of the guarantees of the Constitution. They would say something along the lines of, “He’s a terrorist! We shouldn’t give him any rights at all!” So may I humbly offer a rewrite:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I hated the communists.

And that really is the way rights are lost. This is why we allow the Nazis to have parades. It isn’t because we like them. As a culture, we hate them. But as John Adams wrote, we have “a government of laws, and not of men.” And if we can’t listen to him, perhaps we can listen to that hippy Jew, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

I don’t have any specific fondness for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But I have a great fondness for this country and especially its ideals. And if one criminal can destroy that, we are all lost.

Update (30 April 2013 9:49 am)

Glenn Greenwald just added an update to his article where who quoted by far my favorite founding father, Thomas Paine:

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Of course, I’ve found that most Americans today are far more primitive than this great man who died over 200 years ago. Of course, Americans at that time were just as primitive as they are today. But one would hope that they would have improved a little. Alas.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Because I Was Not a Terrorist…

  1. I think that’s correct when it comes to prejudice and discrimination. Which is why it’s so important for people to meet members of minority groups; it’s harder to irrationally hate someone you know fairly well. (Of course, you can always rationally hate them if they are jerks.)

    Where that poem still rings true is for economic injustice. Someone may easily think, well, since I don’t have a union, I don’t see why others should have their rights to one protected. It isn’t because they hate teachers and firefighters. They simply fail to realize that the imagined benefit of busting that union — lower costs for themselves — is not genuine in the long run. Or if someone is told, "raising the minimum wage will harm customers more than it helps workers." Or that Social Security and Medicare are "unsustainable." These bromides are not believed by people who hate Wal-Mart workers or the elderly. They are simply not in a position to know how important such laws can be for those groups.

    The American story of the last 30+ years is the systematic demolition of what economic justice we once had, and every step is made by appealing to one group and saying "this won’t hurt you, and it’s really going to benefit the people angry about it in the end." Of course austerity can never end until they’ve come for all of us.

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