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Heather Mac Donald
Amnesty International Travesty
The human-rights advocacy group is wrong to condemn America’s detention of illegal aliens.
26 April 2002

Human rights groups began criticizing America’s war on terrorism immediately after September 11 and have not stopped complaining since. Their criticisms can seem unfathomably ignorant until you grasp one crucial fact: left-wing rights organizations do not appear to acknowledge that 9/11 even happened.

Take the most recent diatribe against U.S. self-defense: an Amnesty International report, released last month, on the detention of illegal immigrants picked up after 9/11. Throughout the report, Amnesty puts “terrorist” in scare quotes, to signal the organization’s ironic detachment from the term. If you can’t bring yourself to use the word “terrorist” non-ironically, there is indeed much about recent government actions that will look arbitrary or discriminatory.

After September 11, the FBI and INS were flooded with thousands of tips regarding possible terrorist activity. The Bureau and the Immigration Service concluded that the vast majority of leads involved no suspicious or unlawful behavior, and they closed the case. But a tiny fraction of those leads did cause the INS to pick up the suspect for violation of immigration or criminal law and put him in detention pending further investigation. Cumulatively about 1,200 illegal aliens have been detained for some period of time since 9/11; currently less than 250 people are still being held, most on immigration charges, and some as potential witnesses to terrorist activity.

Amnesty cannot understand this. It is not “usual,” it complains, to detain someone for what it calls “minor immigration infractions.” Usually, an illegal alien remains free until deportation. But the September 11 attacks were not “usual” either. They required an unprecedented response, in order to protect Americans from future devastation. And so the INS used its legal authority to detain a minuscule subset of deportable aliens whom the FBI wanted to investigate for possible terrorist connections. Few of the detainees have criminal records, complains Amnesty. Well, neither did Mohamed Atta and his cronies.

The Amnesty report tries through innuendo and obfuscation to make the 9/11 detentions seem scary and illegal; the fact is, however, that the INS has the authority to detain an illegal alien deemed a flight risk or a threat to public safety pending deportation. The detainees have been able to challenge their imprisonment through habeas corpus petitions, thus availing themselves of the most fundamental due process right: judicial review.

Amnesty and its sister rights organizations, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, are also incensed that some of the post 9/11 detentions have lasted months. “When it comes to immigration violations, the law provides one remedy: [immediate] deportation,” huffed the New York Civil Liberties Union director Donna Lieberman at a recent forum in New York. “It does not prescribe indefinite detention until the government is good and ready to let someone go.”

In fact, immigration law allows the Justice Department and the INS leeway in timing deportations, to accommodate ongoing criminal or terrorist investigations. Given that terrorists are not wont to publicize their activities, it is hardly surprising that an investigation may take months or even years to conclude.

The rights lobby is just as up in arms about the secrecy surrounding the detentions. The government has not released the names of the detainees, and the hearings in many cases have been closed to the public (but not to the alien’s attorney). Though such secrecy is allowed, the anti-government advocates can think of no possible justification for it.

How about this for a reason: after 9/11, it is critical that we protect all sources of intelligence and not let our mortal enemies know whom we have in custody. The post-9/11 detainees are free to call up the press and announce: “I’m here,” or have their attorneys and families do so. Yet most choose to remain anonymous, for the very same reason that Amnesty International itself has chosen not to reveal the names of people it knows to be in detention: to protect their privacy. When the government does the same thing, however, it is violating people’s rights, according to the rights machine.

Nothing so outrages the civil libertarians and rights advocates as the fact that most of the detainees are Muslims from the Middle East or South Asia. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch admits that “yes, the government is lawfully allowed to do what it is doing,” but the question, he says, is: “Why is it discriminating in this manner?”

Earth to Roth: Because we were struck by a terrorist group that defines itself by religious and regional identity. We were not struck by proponents of Danish sovereignty or Italian workers’ rights or British hunting privileges but by radical Muslims who seek to vindicate radical Muslim interests in the Middle East. The rights lobby argues that only American racism explains why al Qaida suspects in custody are predominantly from Muslim countries known to breed terrorists. The lobby is going after the wrong culprit. It should take its beef to Usama bin Ladin and ask why he doesn’t open up his organization to Swedish Lutherans.

Such highly politicized and error-filled criticism of American anti-terrorism efforts devalues the currency of human rights advocacy. Though Amnesty International has done vital work on behalf of prisoners of conscience, it undermines its own credibility when it claims that allowing 9/11 detainees to exercise only in the early morning is a human rights violation. While in the terrible aftermath of 9/11 individual law enforcement officers may have committed some procedural irregularities, Amnesty and its fellow advocates fail to demonstrate any constitutional or international law violations. In their condemnation of the government for taking lawful actions to protect its citizens from catastrophic attack, these civil rights defenders appear to have lost all touch with reality.

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More by Heather Mac Donald:
Prosecution Gets Smart
New York City’s Crime Disease
De Blasio’s Policing Dilemma
More . . .
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