In defense of truth in Stevens case

Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"It saddens me to learn that these charges have been brought against me," said Sen. Ted Stevens, by way of a formal statement issued immediately after he was indicted two weeks ago.

Sadness isn't an emotion usually associated with our senior senator when he doesn't get his way. He's better known for angry tantrums. But if Stevens is innocent as he claims, then the process of defending himself could turn out to be a transformative life experience.

One of the most important human rights we all enjoy in this country is the ability to challenge our accusers. The constitutional guarantee to due process of law, immortalized in the Bill of Rights, is meant to protect the innocent from wrongly being incarcerated.

Yet even though these rights coexist with our rational understanding of freedom, most people will never need to exercise them. Thus they tend to reside in our subconscious until energized by the natural human instinct to defend against false accusations. Then comes the determination to be cleared from guilt that can totally consume one's thinking.

I am not pretending to be a clinical psychologist. Rather, I'm recalling the tormenting experience of having to defend myself to law enforcement authorities for a crime that never happened. For me, the ideal that we're innocent until proven guilty seemed illusory through the weeks of panic attacks that continued even after everything was settled. By the time the events finally faded into a nightmarish memory, my idea of truth had evolved from a simple intellectual understanding to a powerful heartfelt passion that is both personal and beyond reach.

So when I consider Stevens' proclaimed innocence, I am drawn to a curious cause that might be easily misunderstood as liberal rhetoric. If he is acquitted, I wonder if the agony of his ordeal will lead him to discover genuine empathy for the detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

It may seem beyond reason to ask people to compare the rights of a foreigner detained during wartime to those of the elite class of American legislators.

But consider the case of Murat Kurnaz, a 23-year-old German citizen captured in Pakistan in 2001. He was held in Guantanamo from January 2002 until August 2006, two years after the U.S. military and German intelligence knew, according to declassified documents, that there was no evidence linking him to any terrorist organization or activities. The tribunal that declared him an enemy combatant based its conclusion on one brief memo prepared by an unidentified government official.

Such failures aren't unique to prosecutors. We've all heard of cases where a so-called liberal trial lawyer manipulated the law to affect an unjust acquittal of a criminal defendant. In part, the system at Guantanamo was set up to avoid such pitfalls by denying suspected enemy combatants an honest and fair opportunity to affect the outcome of their trial.

While our government claims to be interested in protecting Americans, the extreme application of paranoia can ruin the lives of innocent people.

If Stevens is innocent just as Kurnaz seemed to be, doesn't it suggest that we are all equally vulnerable to being wrongly accused?

On the other hand, if he is guilty as charged, is he any more deserving of the chance to take advantage the inherent weaknesses in a legal process that strives to protect the innocent?

Certainly Stevens never expected to call upon his legal rights to self defense before a national audience. And only he and his maker know what his truth is. If he is truly innocent, he'll never be satisfied with acquittal based only on technicalities. He'll want complete exoneration, and he'll be committed to defending his truth for the rest of his life.

Within the self-evident truth "that all men are created equal," I believe we all share a common psychological desperation to defend ourselves against false accusations that would threaten our freedom.

So why should the right to challenge one's detention belong only to the fortunate citizenry among the human population? If we allow fear to prevent us from granting these rights to others, then our purported beliefs are nothing more than political rhetoric which betrays the universal force of truth.

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