Wednesday, July 27, 2005

No Summer Soldier or Sunshine Patriot

Public figures of all sorts constantly profess their patriotism and love of this country's institutions. Most of these public displays ring false. Occasionally, however, there is an exception. This evening I came across one via Crooks and Liars.

At that site, you can find the transcript of the remarks of United States District Judge John Coughenour made while sentencing Ahmed Ressam, the "millennium bomber" convicted of plotting to blow up Los Angeles airport. Judge Coughenour said, in part, the following:
The message I would hope to convey in today's sentencing is two-fold: First, that we have the resolve in this country to deal with the subject of terrorism and people who engage in it should be prepared to sacrifice a major portion of their life in confinement.

Secondly, though, I would like to convey the message that our system works. We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution.

I would suggest that the message to the world from today's sentencing is that our courts have not abandoned our commitment to the ideals that set our nation apart. We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections.

Despite the fact that Mr. Ressam is not an American citizen and despite the fact that he entered this country intent upon killing American citizens, he received an effective, vigorous defense, and the opportunity to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.

Most importantly, all of this occurred in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel.

The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism. Unfortunately, some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete. This is a Constitution for which men and women have died and continue to die and which has made us a model among nations. If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won.

It is my sworn duty, and as long as there is breath in my body I'll perform it, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

We will be in recess.
(Emphasis added.)

It is commonly believed that because federal judges have life tenure, they are unswayed by any public passion du jour. Not true. It is also believed that the highest form of bravery is to risk life and limb in combat. I don't think that it diminishes the sacrifices of those in the military to suggest that it is often much more difficult to resist the scorn of one's friends and neighbors by taking an unpopular stand. It is difficult even for a federal judge.

Judge Coughenour did not have to go out on a limb and attack the encroachments on our liberty posed by those waving the bloody shirt of 9/11. His bravery in making the short, simple, but elegant statement in the course of the sentencing would justify the award of the judicial equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor if there was such an award.

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