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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Striking a balance between security and civil liberty

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

ACLU suit could prompt a needed debate on the issue.

Monday, June 22, 2009 10:00 am
A nation cannot make security its only concern – if we give up too many civil liberties, what's the point of being safe? Safe from what? But we can't be so fussy about legal niceties that we allow enemies to overrun us. The Constitution, it has been noted, is not a suicide pact.How do we balance our security and our rights? How do we know if we're concentrating too much on one or the other? Often, that seems much too big of a debate to get our heads around. But sometimes, we can grasp the competing interests in a single case. Such a case is the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the government over the creation of a special isolation unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

The ACLU says about 40 prisoners, mostly Muslims, are being held in a “secretly created” Communication Management Unit in which they have no contact with other prisoners, limited contact with the outside world and no physical contact with family members.

In addition to those convicted of terror-related crimes, the unit also is designed to hold certain disciplinary cases and sex offenders who try to contact their victims.

The ACLU said unit prisoners cannot have any physical contact with visitors, who can visit only on weekdays and talk by telephone while separated by partitions. Most other federal prisoners can kiss and shake hands with visitors. CMU prisoners can have only one 15-minute telephone call per week, except on legal matters, and cannot participate in prison programs with non-unit inmates.

In the suit, the ACLU is focusing on Sabri Benkahla, a 34-year-old Virginia man serving a 10-year sentence for his 2007 convictions for obstruction of justice and lying about training with militants in Pakistan. He was acquitted in 2004 of charges of aiding the Taliban with a U.S. group that prosecutors said trained for jihad with paintball guns.

Some civil libertarians are going overboard in their rhetoric. A representative of the Center for Constitutional Rights, for example, says such units are “political prisons” and are used to limit prisoners' “ability to communicate,” thus limiting “their ability to be political people.” But CMU supporters are also being disingenuous to claim that the units are only used to house prisoners deemed such a risk that too much communication with the outside world poses a grave threat to public safety. Whispering “terror” to the public is not a justification for anything the state wants to do with prisoners.

The trial of this suit may be seen as a nuisance by some, but it is also an opportunity to debate issues our “war on terror” has raised.

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