Everyone 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:
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:
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.