Lieberman and McCain: Now to the Right of Glenn Beck on Detainee Treatment

One of the more welcome surprises following the arrest of alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad has been the reaction from some prominent members of the populist right. Glenn Beck, noting Shahzad’s status as a naturalized U.S citizen, argued that “of course” Shahzad should receive Miranda rights. When a Fox News colleague argued that Shahzad should be denied such rights because “he’s a threat to the country,” Beck countered that “so are a lot of citizens of the country.” He stated bluntly: “you don’t shred the Constitution — ever.” Andrew Napolitano, another right-wing Fox News personality, seemed to concur with Beck’s analysis, arguing that Shahzad was entitled to Miranda rights as a citizen. (Napolitano previously attacked the Obama administration for issuing an order to assassinate U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric now living in Yemen.) It would be premature to hail Beck’s stance as an exemplar of moral probity — in the same segment he expressed his clear support for torture so long as the suspects are not U.S. citizens — but his defense of Shahzad’s Miranda rights was clearly noteworthy nonetheless.

Now compare neoconservative Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who for years have sought to cast themselves as opponents of torture and responsible moderates on detainee issues. (Their actual record on these issues has always been more posturing than substance, but that’s another story.) McCain, who has rapidly been abandoning all of his former principles in an effort to fend off a right-wing primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, claimed that it would be a “serious mistake” to give Shahzad his Miranda rights. Lieberman went farther, arguing that anyone charged with (not convicted of) terrorism should be stripped of their U.S. citizenship:

I think it’s time for us to look at whether we want to amend that law to apply it to American citizens who choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations, whether they should not also be deprived automatically of their citizenship, and therefore be deprived of rights that come with that citizenship when they are apprehended and charged with a terrorist act.

By suggesting that the government should have the ability to revoke U.S. citizenship and deny citizens the protections of the Bill of Rights merely by alleging (not proving) involvement with terrorism, Lieberman placed himself firmly in John Yoo territory.

The disagreement between Beck and Napolitano on the one hand and Lieberman and McCain on the other suggests the possibility of a clash over civil liberties between the populist libertarian right and the neoconservative right. As I wrote a few weeks ago, conservative criticism of the Bush (and now Obama) administrations’ infringements on civil liberties has been dampened by the apparent belief that Muslims (and those who look like Muslims) are the only ones who will be victimized. Indeed, Lieberman was playing to this blind spot by restricting his call to revoke citizenship to suspected affiliates of “foreign” (read: Muslim) terrorist groups, thus seeking to reassure worried right-wingers that only brown-skinned people will be targeted by such policies. Still, it seems quite possible that the neoconservative desire to wage the “war on terror” to its utmost regardless of the moral or legal costs will increasingly raise hackles among an increasingly populist conservative movement that claims to take its bearings from the Founders and is thus reluctant to, as Beck put it, “shred the Constitution.” And if there’s one upside to the apparent belief among many Tea Partiers that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Marxist Islamist double agent, it’s that it may convince them to be more skeptical about entrusting unlimited and arbitrary power to the presidency.

As noted, Beck’s statement is a small and ultimately not very significant step, and it may be naive to expect the Tea Party movement to start applying its libertarian rhetoric in earnest to the war on terror. Perhaps the right will continue to pay attention to infringements of civil liberties only when it’s “us” and not “them” who suffer from them. But regardless, anyone hoping for a better U.S. foreign policy should hope that the populists and libertarians can seize the Republican Party back from the neocons.

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Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Well, of course I’ve just given the appearance of contradicting myself by saying that libertarians ARE doctrinaire, and then saying that they don’t adhere to a specific ideological program. Such are the risks of blogging while helping a 5th-grader with her homework.

    What I should have said in my first post was “monomanical” rather than doctrinaire. Many libertarians simply refuse to see the other side on issues like the minimum wage. But there is no “libertarian” position on the minimum wage to which one must adhere or risk excommunication. Generally speaking, there is no libertarian doctrine or program beyond maximum freedom for the individual, and even this is interpreted in different ways by different types of libertarians — an anarchist libertarian would probably regard me as a statist, though “minarchist” would be a more accurate term.

    The Libertarian Party runs on a platform every four years, but it represents a minority of the libertarian community. There is no “program” or doctrine adhered to by libertarians generally, beyond a belief that the individual should be as free as possible. (How much is “possible” is where we differ.)

  2. Jon, I am aware that Beck and most of the Tea Party crowd are for the most part not libertarian in any real sense. I refer to them as libertarian mostly because that’s how they refer to themselves. (I believe Beck does call himself “libertarian,” although I am open to correction on that point.)

    Of course, there are differences between most populist movement conservatives, including those who consider themselves on the libertarian end of the spectrum, and true libertarians. I generally prefer the latter to the former for obvious reasons, and it was probably a little lazy on my part to refer to them as if they’re synonymous in the post. But without lecturing you on what you call “the nuances of right wing ideology,” I would say that the line is fuzzier than you are allowing. It seems to me that if you look at the popular following of someone like Ron Paul, you will find both populist conservatives, libertarians, and a fair number of people who answer to both.

  3. A Jewish senator trying to legally strip citizens of their citizenship. Let the Godwinning begin.

  4. Daniel, I have to say that you’ve got me here. (I enjoyed your line, “without lecturing you . . .” — it’s quite true that I lecture you — and not you alone — from time to time. Shyness has never been a problem for me.) I persist in commenting on this site because I think it’s a great site and it happens to deal with issues I care about deeply. But commenting has its own special dangers. When one writes something for publication (as opposed to online commentary and criticism, that is), one goes through drafts, then an editor, and eventually produces a finished product. Commenting is done off the cuff, as it were — at least I don’t put in the time and care I would were I the author of the original piece. I wrote hastily and was not fair (or fair enough) to you. I consider your reply more than fair comment.

    On the subject itself, I was rather surprised that Beck challenged the Lieberman view. I watched Beck a bit when he first appeared, and I concluded that he was basically a fraud. Or, if he was indeed serious, that he was a —– Perhaps there’s more to him than I thought. I will have to (ugh) watch him some more and see if my opinion changes.

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