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FP: The Wages of 9/11

Author: James Traub
April 6, 2012


The war on terror may be over, but it's left behind a terrible human rights legacy--and Barack Obama has done very little about it, says James Traub, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.

I felt a surge of shame earlier this week when I read an account of the 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision authorizing prison officials to strip-search any of the 13 million people arrested every year. The case was brought by Albert W. Florence, who had been mistakenly arrested for failing to pay a court fine which he had, in fact, paid -- and then was forced to squat naked and cough in front of guards. The infraction could have been even flimsier: Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that one person had been subjected to this humiliating invasion of privacy after "riding a bicycle without an audible bell." Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision, rebutted this objection by noting that "people detained for minor offenses can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals."

Florence was not, of course, a suspected terrorist, but the case was a reminder of how America's crackdown on crime over the last generation has converged with the atmosphere of fear and suspicion produced by 9/11 to make the United States a terribly harsh and forbidding place for anyone who falls afoul of the law. Indeed, the Washington Post noted that the court's decision "continued a trend that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks of giving jailers more leeway in searching those picked up even for the most minor offenses." And Kennedy's reasoning -- better to subject an entire population to degrading treatment than to overlook one dangerous actor -- is precisely the logic that led the Bush administration to detain vast numbers of perfectly innocent people on suspicion of terrorist activity after 9/11, or to subject millions of visitors to the United States to an exhaustive grilling by customs officials lest a terrorist slip through the net.

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