The Ontology of Miranda Rights

One tick I’ve noticed in conservative discourse on the Underpants Bomber case is the idea that Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and the FBI somehow decided to “give” the suspect his Miranda rights, as if they’d somehow created the right to remain silent out of whole cloth. The point of the standard lines about how “you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, etc.” is that these are rights that criminal suspects inherently have in virtue of the American constitution. When a law enforcement officer tells someone he’s arresting that he has these rights, he’s not creating the rights, he’s informing the suspect what the situation is.

What’s more, it can’t be emphasized enough that government agencies need to follow some kind of rules or processes. The accused have rights for the sake of the integrity of the system as a whole—it’s not a courtesy we offer to criminals, it’s a procedure designed to produce reliable outcomes. It’s true that in the specific case of the Underpants Bomber the guy seems so obviously guilty that it’s not reasonable to worry about him being railroaded or framed-up. You really could just skip the whole trial part with no loss of reliability in this particular case. But, again, if you just let law enforcement unilaterally which suspects are “obviously” guilty that would cause all kinds of obvious problems. The United States is a big country with tons of different law enforcement agencies. They can’t run around making up the rules on a case-by-case basis. So you follow the rules in all cases, even when it really is obvious that your suspect is guilty.

The underlying issue here, as I’ve been saying, is that conservatives think that any constraint on the state security apparatus is too much. They believe, contrary to all of the evidence, that the rule-bound criminal justice system can’t or doesn’t function and that things would be better if we scrapped all the rules. And, indeed, in the civilian context they’ve worked steadily and systematically over a period of decades to weaken the constitutional protections as much as possible, and bring us as close as possible to their dream scenario of limitless state-sponsored violence. The desire to push certain categories of people (non-citizens) or certain categories of suspects (terrorists) out of the constitutionally protected realm is just part-and-parcel of that broad-based assault on the idea of a rule-bound justice system.