Globe Editorial

Threat to strip citizenship won’t dissuade terrorists

May 8, 2010

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ON THURSDAY, Senators Scott Brown and Joe Lieberman introduced the Terrorist Expatriation Bill, which would strip the citizenship of any American, naturalized or native-born, found to have supported or joined a terrorist group. While the ruling could be appealed in court, the designation itself wouldn’t require any sort of hearing or that the accused be convicted of a crime. The person’s citizenship would simply be removed on the say-so of the State Department.

It’s understandable, after the recent Times Square incident involving a naturalized Pakistani, that Brown and Lieberman would seek to beef up anti-terrorism laws. But this bill is a misguided, opportunistic attempt to do so — and one that represents the most damaging, retrograde anti-terror legal ideas.

The bill is probably unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has long held that the government cannot strip away an American’s citizenship status without his or her consent (unless they have pledged allegiance to a foreign state or army), even for hideous crimes. So even if it were passed, the bill would immediately face a tangle of legal barriers.

The bill also reflects the persistent — but ultimately pernicious — idea that there should be an entire category of US citizens whose rights are swept away with the stroke of the pen, simply because a government official declares them to be a terrorist.

It may be an effective campaign slogan to proclaim that terrorists should have no rights, but it leads to a deeply problematic set of policies. American citizens have legal rights to protect them against false government accusations; bills like the one that Lieberman and Brown are pushing effectively make people guilty until proven innocent. It’s a travesty of justice that’s offensive to basic American liberties.

A number of alleged terrorists have been placed in the Guantanamo Bay prison, only to be found innocent later. A system such as Lieberman and Brown are seeking is likely to lead to government overreach. The bill could lead to the revocation of citizenship of people who donated unknowingly to an organization on a government terrorist list.

There’s also the more basic question of whether the Terrorist Expatriation Bill could realistically serve as a deterrent. It’s hard to imagine that a terrorist seeking to destroy the United States would be dissuaded by the prospect of losing his or her citizenship.

Given that this bill is probably unconstitutional and not any sort of real deterrent, it seems designed as a vehicle for expressing political anger over terrorism. But the debate over terrorism has been plagued by tougher-than-thou pronouncements from politicians who fail to fully think out the ramifications of their policies.

Brown, who got a lot of mileage out of applause lines about the dangers of “lawyering up’’ terrorism suspects, is, unfortunately, a major offender.

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