In the weeks since John McCain introduced Sarah Palin as his running mate, she has become one of the most famous people in America.
She has been cunningly impersonated on Saturday Night Live by her look-alike Tina Fey, grilled by ABC's sober anchor Charlie Gibson, and investigated by teams of reporters who by now have hunted down every person in Alaska with a grudge or criticism.
We discovered that her teenage daughter is pregnant and watched as the hockey-playing lad who knocked her up was rapidly betrothed, cleaned up and hauled wide-eyed into the national spotlight with his soon-to-be in-laws - a bracingly modern variation of the old shotgun wedding. We have learned that Palin, like just about every other politician in human history, tends to hire her friends and fire her enemies.
We will learn more, but none of the above has done much to alter her image as a refreshingly independent, aggressive, smart, down-to-earth, and surprisingly effective public official. And we all know she can give a good speech.
But it was in that much-heralded speech at the Republican convention that Palin tossed off a line I found more disturbing than anything unearthed about her since. It got a predictably enthusiastic response from the keyed-up partisan crowd.
"Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America," said Palin, and then, referring to Barack Obama, quipped: "He's worried that someone won't read them their rights."
Quite apart from the cheap distortion of Obama's position, typical of most campaign rhetoric, this is a classic lynch-mob line. It is the taunt of the drunken lout in the cowboy movie who confronts a sheriff barring the prison door - He wants to give 'im a trial? It is the precise sentiment that Atticus Finch so memorably sets himself against in Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, when he agrees to defend a supposedly indefensible black man charged with rape (falsely, as it turns out).
I wonder if Palin really believes her own position on this. I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was just a speechwriter's idea of a great applause line, perhaps she hasn't fully thought it through. The sentiment is on the wrong side of a deep principle, one that we have long honored in this country, that has to do with basic fairness, the rule of law, and ultimately with standing up intelligently to terrorism.
Palin's comments referred to McCain's condemnation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer that upheld detainees' rights to the most basic of legal protections against arrest and imprisonment, a habeas corpus petition. The court ruled that our government cannot just call someone a terrorist, arrest him, and hold him indefinitely without showing some reasonable cause. McCain has called this "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Obama has praised it.
The court's decision is just the latest word in an evolving national discussion of what to do with captured "terrorists." Congress and the White House have been wrestling with this since Sept. 11, 2001, and will continue to do so. Even those who applauded the court's defense of habeas corpus are not so sure that federal courts are the right place for "enemy combatants" to appeal their detention. And among those who side with the court, few would argue that enemy combatants are owed the full legal protections enjoyed by citizens. But certainly anyone arrested and locked away deserves the chance to challenge their arrest.
Mind you, we are not talking about a trial here, just a hearing to establish that there is enough evidence to lock the suspect away.
Palin's applause line applied the lynch-mob standard: Because a man has been arrested, he is guilty. End of story.
In 2003, when the first group of prisoners was released from Guantanamo, I traveled to Pakistan to find two of them, Shah Muhammad and Sahibzada Osman Ali. Both hailed from tiny villages in the mountainous region of Pakistan where al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been hiding. As an American, I was nervous traveling in that region, and honestly didn't know what to expect when I found them.
I was greeted with warmth and elaborate courtesy. Both were men in their early 20s, uneducated, unworldly, and dirt poor. They had been rounded up by entrepreneurial Afghani warlords who were being paid $4,000 a head to capture jihadis for the Americans. Four thousand dollars is a huge payday in Afghanistan, and the warlords were not discriminating. Both apparently hapless young Pakistanis were among the original herds of elaborately restrained detainees in orange jumpsuits delivered to Camp X-Ray, the ones who were all treated like mass murderers. Some of them were. Many, it turns out, were not.
Shah Muhammad and Sahibzada Osman Ali were held for almost two years before the authorities figured out that they did not pose a threat to Western civilization.
Maybe the authorities and I both have it wrong. Perhaps these two are huddling right now with Osama bin Laden himself, but they have stood in my mind ever since as examples of why detainees deserve a hearing of some kind, whether in federal court or before some panel that is seen to be fair and reasonably concerned about basic justice.
We are at war against forces who seek a permanent state of fear, for whom violence is an end in itself. Our side of the fight defends government by consent, and the rule of law. It is why we fight, and what makes our use of violence against our enemies morally defensible. This is why it is critical that we respect individual rights and act lawfully.
That does not mean reading Miranda warnings to enemy combatants, as Palin glibly suggested, or affording them the full battery of rights given criminal defendants in this country. It does mean that even those accused of the most vile crimes have some.
Our Founding Fathers called them "unalienable."