Losing Our Heads over Losing Citizenship

I t happens every time. There is a threat, a genuine threat, of whatever degree, and some people overreact to it. Some people underreact to it too. Often the underreaction is a reaction to the overreaction. Often it works the other way around. We don’t need to play chicken or egg. It works both ways. Both reactions, then, become reactions not to the action, but to other people’s reactions. The two sides – the over and the underreactors – rather than advocating policies, are really, in significant measure, contending over ideology. But they don’t say this. They pretend. They’re dishonest.

Cover to the propaganda comic book
Image via Wikipedia

There are many examples, especially from the Cold War, the McCarthyite hysteria the most obvious example. There was, indeed, an underreaction. Many leftists and communist sympathizers refused to acknowledge, even to themselves, the true nature of Soviet communism. Some today would still need to see a photo of Julius Rosenberg with a warhead in his lap to accept the truth of his espionage. The overreaction was McCarthyism. The Soviet-U.S. “bomber gap” and then “missile gap” of the 50s and early 60s were overreaction further propagated as lie.

We need to remember this. We’ve been there before. The same parties playing the same roles. Now, since 9/11, we are there again.

Joe Lieberman wants to add

joining a foreign terrorist organization or engaging in or supporting hostilities against the United States or its allies to the list of acts for which United States nationals would lose their nationality.

I have no problem with that in principle. In principle, I have no problem with the two-party system. I just have a problem with one of the parties. But I believe in having principles.

You might have a problem with Lieberman’s idea in principle. That’s fine, too, though you would then have to contend with the the current legal reality that an individual may be stripped of citizenship for joining an enemy army. That itself is not quite so simple, legally, as it might appear, as the government still needs to establish an “intent to relinquish” citizenship. You and I might think that joining an enemy army should serve as pretty clear indication of such intent, but, apparently, legally, that ain’t so.

U.S. and USSR/Russian nuclear weapons stockpil...
U.S. and USSR/Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles Image via Wikipedia

Nonetheless, if you accept in any measure the idea that what varied Islamic extremist organizations are waging against the U.S. and much of the West, and other parts of the world, is a kind of war, a new kind of, non-state-actor, war, rather than simply a law enforcement problem, and I do so accept, you must again contend with the similarity between membership in a foreign army and membership in a foreign terrorist organization, each committed to hostilities against the U.S. Now, again, if you’re opposed to all of this – the very idea of stripping an individual of citizenship, denaturalizing the person, as they say, even under current statute – then case closed. Lieberman stands on no common ground with you.

However, common ground on this issue – better understood henceforward as a clear conception of it – is genuinely needed to think this mistaken proposal through. Among the many people quickly opposed to Lieberman’s proposal for many good reasons, Megan McArdle, everyone’s favorite libertarian economics writer and blogger for the Atlantic, got confused at the outset.

Can someone explain to me–hopefully using graphs, and small words–why Joe Lieberman is willing to share the precious blessing of American citizenship with Charles Manson, Gary Ridgeway, and David Berkowitz, but wants citizenship stripped from a guy who strapped some firecrackers to a bag of non-explosive fertilizer?

I’ll abjure the graphs, and not limit the size of my words. What McArdle has done here is commit a categorical confusion. Leaving aside her underreactive diminution of Faisal Shahzad’s intent in Times Square, McArdle mistakenly conceives that it is the heinousness of the crime that is in question. But it is not. Surely, most of us think child abuse, child sexual abuse – and then add serial child sexual abuse – to be among the most heinous of crimes. We don’t propose denaturalization for it. Go that route – strip the citizenship of all those whose crimes are morally reprehensible (Bernie Madoff, anyone?) and we could fuel a reverse Mariel boatlift and finally solve that Castro problem. The issue, though, is not how shockingly monstrous is the crime, but whether the crime is some sense a crime against citizenship, if there may be any such.

Most people will agree that, at one and the same time, both the ultimate expression of citizenship and the first duty of citizenship is the willingness to defend the polity against its enemies. Without that willingness, what meaning does membership – citizenship – have for one’s fellows, who have joined together for many exalted purposes, none of which can be securely pursued without a commitment to the common defense? And what more direct way to violate this first principle of citizenship than to actively join with or support enemies of the nation?

Conceptually, then, there seems little good reason to object to the sentiment of Lieberman’s bill or even its proposal, actual denaturalization – after all due process of law has been followed.

However, as the Los Angeles Times argued

Lieberman is candid about why he wants to deprive suspected U.S. terrorists of their citizenship: to deny them due-process rights available to Americans. Referring to Adam Gadahn, an American spokesman for Al Qaeda, Lieberman explained: “If our proposal becomes law, the State Department could immediately begin revoking Gadahn’s citizenship and, if he is captured at some point in the future, he could then be tried by military commission as the unprivileged enemy belligerent that he is.” Never mind that Gadahn already has been indicted for treason and that, even if the law were broadened as Lieberman proposes, the government would have to conclude that Gadahn and other terrorists intended to relinquish their citizenship. [Emphasis added.]

A bill advocating institutionalization of a process by which American citizens might be deprived of their citizenship by the government without legal due process: forgive me, it is not my general inclination, but really – can you conceive of a proposal in its essence more un-American?

What adds ideologically overreactive insult to un-American injury is that Lieberman’s proposal followed swiftly upon Shahzad’s arrest and the now de rigueur criticism from conservatives that, under Obama, law enforcement had been too quick to afford an American citizen his rights. (There are reports that several conservative politicians’ and commentators’ heads exploded from trying to contain their inner contradictions, but that the bodies were quickly removed by a cleanup crew. Drudge is on the case. Developing…) The not accidental irony is that Lieberman’s legislation would have had no application to the Shahzad case, since it would only apply to those apprehended abroad.

Why, then, the timing of a completely inapposite response to events? Because there was an attempt that was not thwarted even before it could be made. Because Shahzad was apprehended in 53 hours instead of 53 seconds. Because Shahzad was read his Miranda rights at all, even though he was interrogated for hours, under the public security exception, to much useful effect, before he was Mirandized. Because the Right would prefer that you not have Miranda rights when you get arrested. (So sure, really, that you never will be, carrying a gun, maybe, to an anti-Obama rally?) Because Obama is president.

There is a case to be made for denaturalizing citizens who turn against their country in concert with terrorists. This is not the case. This is not the moment. These are not the people.

When people play politics with national security, which is unfortunately every day, I clear a channel from one ear to the other for what they have to say. I listen to others.

You should too.


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2 thoughts on “Losing Our Heads over Losing Citizenship

  1. Mr Adler,

    I’m with you on this one, too. If an American citizen is to be stripped of citizenship, let it be after that American citizen has been tried and found guilty of treason. The question of citizenship shouldn’t even be in consideration unless there’s been a trial and a conviction.

    “First they came for…” and all that.

  2. I tend to agree with you on this one (and have also been uncomfortable with the ease with which an American citizen in Yemen, Awlaki has been condemned to death without anything resembling due process.) As I have said before, the greatest threat to our liberties is a successful attack followed by a panicked over-reaction from the government. It appears they can over-react even with failed attacks.

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