A Terrorist Lawyer, and Proud of It
Published: March 26, 2010
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO — I am a criminal defense lawyer. Over the past 32 years I have defended people and institutions charged with a myriad of crimes in the United States and I have consulted on criminal cases in Europe. When I defended someone charged with raping a baby, no one thought I might have raped my own. When I defended someone charged with murder, no one searched my closets for skeletons. When I defended someone charged with a drug crime, no one accused me of using narcotics. And even when I defended those accused of espionage for attempting to sell America’s nuclear secrets, no one questioned my loyalty to my country.
No longer. Now that I am defending those accused of terrorism, some people assume that I have stepped over an imaginary line and become “soft on terrorism” or worse, that I support terrorism and am providing aid and comfort to the enemy.
So let me say it: I am a terrorist lawyer, if that means I am willing to defend those accused of terrorism. I am currently defending two men imprisoned in Guantánamo and I defend others accused of terrorism. Contrary to recent attacks by those who claim to be supporters of American justice, my defense of people accused of serious and sometimes horrific crimes is not an endorsement of those crimes. Rather, it is a testament to the strength of my belief in, and commitment to, the American system of justice. Why? Because in my defense of every client, I am defending the United States Constitution and the laws and treaties to which it is bound, and I am defending the rule of law. If I am a terrorist lawyer, I also am a rule-of-law lawyer, a constitutional lawyer and a treaty lawyer.
Of course I am not alone. Our history is filled with those who were proud to defend accused terrorists and enemies of the state. John Adams, who went on to become the second president of the United States, defended the British soldiers who killed innocent American civilians during what became known as the Boston Massacre. He said of his defense: “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.”
Col. Kenneth Royall, who later became Secretary of the Army, defended eight Germans who came ashore in 1942 intent on damaging U.S. weapons factories. He proclaimed this his finest hour as a lawyer.
Today civilian and military lawyers defend the non-citizens long and wrongfully imprisoned in Guantánamo — most (but not all) of whom are innocent men captured by bounty hunters.
Yes, some, in fact many, of the people I have defended have been found guilty of crimes, including terrorism.
But I am proud to have stood by their sides because they were entitled to have at least one person stand firm in their defense and in the defense of the rule of law against a powerful adversary — the awesome power of my own government. That is what the U.S. Constitution requires me to do and what our system of justice needs me to do if it is to maintain its strength for all of us.
Elected officials in the United States continue to plan for trials by military commissions and even talk of permanently detaining some people without ever determining their guilt or innocence. At least for now, this does not apply to U.S. citizens. But that could change. Once we begin compromising our legal principles and values, it is difficult to predict how much further those principles and values will erode.
The critical point is that this is not American justice. The U.S. Constitution provides that all citizens of the United States and all non-citizens who come to our shores, legally or illegally, or who are accused of violating the long arm of our anti-terrorism statutes abroad, will be safe here from arbitrary treatment.
Sadly, some of the clients accused of terrorism that I and other criminal defense lawyers have sworn an oath to protect and defend have not been safe in the custody of the United States. They have been locked away for years alone and without recourse, and they have suffered from abuse or even torture.
The highest members of the U.S. government knew of this torture and condoned it for too many years, leaving men broken in mind and body. Both of my clients now at Guantánamo have been brutally tortured and both continue to be imprisoned without trial, now for almost 10 years.
The Constitution, laws and treaties I am sworn to defend are not safe either. Every day political figures in the United States continue to use fear in an effort to convince Americans that danger lies in protecting the very freedoms, rights and principles we value.
Those who are shouting the loudest today to limit the rights and protections available to my clients include some who may find themselves on the other side of the law in the future.
Whom will they call should the day come when they are charged with crimes as a result of lying to get the United States into war in Iraq, or permitting prisoners to be tortured, or illegally wiretapping our citizenry?
Nancy Hollander is a criminal defense lawyer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She currently represents two prisoners incarcerated in Guantánamo.