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Know your rights: The limits of liberty

March 30, 2012, 2:37 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, contributor Richard McGill Murphy reviews David K. Shipler’s Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America.

Ernesto A. Miranda was a hardened criminal with a rap sheet stretching back to the eighth grade. His offenses included truancy, armed robbery, and the kidnapping and rape of a mentally impaired 18-year-old woman. When the Phoenix police arrested Miranda for this last offense, they interrogated him in a soundproofed room for two hours without advising him of his legal rights to silence and counsel, which are guaranteed respectively by the 5th and 6th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Miranda was subsequently convicted of kidnapping and rape, and sentenced to serve 20 to 30 years in prison. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1966 that his constitutional rights had been violated. The Court set aside the conviction and fashioned the famous four-part warning that bears Miranda’s name. Henceforth, the justices ordered, all criminal suspects must be advised up front that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in a court of law, that they have the right to an attorney, and that an attorney will be appointed for them prior to questioning if they so desire.

The state of Arizona then tried Miranda again for the same crime, using different and this time untainted evidence. He was duly convicted and given the same 20 to 30 year sentence. Released on parole in 1972, he was stabbed to death in 1976 in a barroom fight over a $3 gambling pot. “As in many other landmark cases, a noble legacy was left by an ignoble life,” writes David K. Shipler in Rights at Risk, his fascinating, wide-ranging new study of civil liberties in America.

Shipler is a former New York Times correspondent who won the Pulitzer Prize for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. His latest book is the second volume in a monumental account of the long American struggle to balance collective security and individual liberty. While this story dates back to the founding of the Republic, Shipler focuses on the tumultuous years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

After 2001, the federal government addressed legitimate security concerns by engaging in warrantless wiretapping, the judicial abuse of both legal and illegal immigrants, and the torture and indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” without due process. But these end-runs around the Constitution have not been confined to the “war on terror.” Despite the Bill of Rights, Shipler points out that police and prosecutors continue to abuse the constitutional rights of prisoners suspected of ordinary street crimes. In a chapter called “Torture and Torment,” he compares the physical abuse of black prisoners by Chicago police to the CIA torture of Muslim terror suspects in secret prisons abroad.

Note the ethnic and religious qualifiers. In his introduction, Shipler notes that “most of the victims in these pages are black, Muslim, or members of other minorities — most, but not all. Many are criminals, terrorists, or misfits — many, but not all. They are often guilty — often, but not always. They get little sympathy from the larger, law-abiding citizenry. But they should, for if a retarded man is abused during police interrogation, if a poor woman is denied a competent lawyer, if a dissenting student is punished for the slogan on her T-shirt, the rights they lose are lost to everyone.”

Beyond the war on terror, Shipler demonstrates the routine subversion of due-process rights by an assembly-line judicial process that legal professionals cynically describe as “McJustice.” He also shows how our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association have been violated by everyone from overzealous school principals to presidential advance teams, in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, who have been eager to eliminate any trace of dissent from the Commander-in-Chief’s photo-ops.

Shipler is particularly good at weaving together legal history and personal storytelling. He brings the rarefied world of Supreme Court jurisprudence alive by introducing us to ordinary people whose rights have been trampled by the executive branch, often with legislative and judicial branch connivance. They range from legal immigrants jailed for the crime of looking foreign, to an impoverished black woman who went to jail for six years after she was forced to share her drug-dealer boyfriend’s attorney. (The attorney resolved this egregious conflict of interest by favoring the drug-dealer’s interests over those of his girlfriend.)

We are all responsible for defending our civil rights, which brings us back to the legacy of Ernesto Miranda. “In a way, it is pathetic in this open system that people under arrest have to be read the Miranda warning,” Shipler writes. In effect, we can only secure the blessings of liberty if we are constitutionally literate, and every generation must relearn the hard lesson that rights must be invoked if they are to be preserved.

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