by Christina Beeler, ACS Student Board member
President Donald Trump seemingly endorses police brutality of suspects. He said, “like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody – don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?” Although defenders insisted his remarks were made in jest, police departments all over the country rushed to condemn Trump’s remarks.
Trump’s words brought up an old debate: should the protections of the Constitution extend only to those we deem worthy of empathy or is the Constitution there to protect even those who we may find abhorrent?
Everyone is on board with protecting the constitutional rights of those we deem worthy of empathy, like the brave and innocent Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, but the reality is that the Constitution not only exists to protect heroic characters like Dufresne.
Many of the constitutional rights with which Americans are most familiar did not come from situations involving particularly sympathetic people. In 1963, Ernesto Miranda confessed to rape and kidnapping during a police interrogation and was subsequently convicted because of his confession. However, the Supreme Court ruled that Miranda’s confession could not be used against him in a criminal trial because he had not been informed of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
Miranda was not someone who most of us would find particularly sympathetic. In the Miranda opinion, Justice Warren referred to Miranda as a “seriously disturbed individual with pronounced sexual fantasies.” And yet Miranda Rights are mandatory today, even for people like Miranda who stand in stark contrast to gallant figures like Andy Dufresne. The plaintiff in Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark case which established the right to an attorney for those charged with serious crimes who cannot afford one themselves, was a repeat criminal offender. After his acquittal at his second trial, he returned to a life of crime, served several more jail terms, and when he died, his body was buried in an unmarked grave (although the ACLU eventually placed a commemorative tombstone on his grave).
The principles and values enshrined in the Constitution which protect even the “lowest” among us stand in stark contrast to recent Trump statements and actions, like his recent pardon of Joe Arpaio, who was convicted in federal court of criminal contempt after he purposefully refused to comply with a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling and detaining people he suspected of having undocumented status. Arpaio once bragged on his campaign website about the tough conditions of his jails, noting that “[t]oo many jails in this country are just shy of being like hotels. That isn’t right. I keep saying, ‘People shouldn’t live better in jail than they do on the outside.’ Here in my jails, they don’t.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky once noted that “[t]he degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The rights enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are there to protect the ideas we value as a collective, like treating even the people we deem most unsympathetic in our society as human beings, including guilty people or people we’ve labeled as “other”. The entire structure of American government is in place to ensure that our basest urges, like vigilante justice or cruelty based on our own subjective notions of morality, do not take precedence over reason and logic and the values we have chosen to endorse as a country.
Our Founding Fathers realized that humans are fallible and power corrupts even the “best” and “most moral” people. James Madison once wrote, “[t]he truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.” Thus, we have systems in place to avoid that corruption. We have constitutional rights to ensure that those who have power do not abuse it, even against those who we may not find likable or worthy of compassion. We should not do away with those procedures and rights for anything- not national security, not because someone is guilty, not for any reason. The Constitution protects even the most marginalized among us, even the least sympathetic among us, whether you feel empathy for them or not.