Richard Jewell: Drug war victim

The shabby treatment of the Atlanta bombing "suspect" is symptomatic of a much broader crisis of civil liberties


David Futrelle
November 13, 1996 5:42PM (UTC)

In the two weeks since the U.S. government's official exoneration of security guard
Richard Jewell, journalists have fallen all over themselves to excoriate
the FBI, the Clinton administration, and their own profession for the
shabby treatment they've given a lowly hero whose 15 minutes of fame
went terribly terribly sour. Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg compared the press treatment of Jewell to the attack on Pearl Harbor, suggesting that "the smear attack on Jewell ... should live in infamy."

The conservative Weekly Standard offered a somewhat more
creative, all-encompassing take on the subject, arguing that the case
reflected "a new culture in which heroes are turned into villains so that
the mediocre can live with consciences untroubled by their mediocrity,
their careers unmarked by accountability, their jobs unburdened of
responsibility."

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Clever, but wrong. Sure, Clinton administration recklessness, yellow
journalism, and plain old-fashioned hysteria over terrorism all played a
role in Jewell's mistreatment. But the prime culprit in Jewell's woes, I'd
suggest, has been our costly and misguided war on drugs.

How is that? Consider: Jewell was named a suspect on the basis of little
more than a "profile" he was said to have fit that of a lonely loser
desperate to be thought a hero. The affidavits that allowed the authorities
to search Jewell's apartment and turn his life upside down, noted former federal prosecutor Joseph Di Genova, were "thin" though
"probably ... legally and constitutionally sufficient for a search."

Would this have been the case without the precedents set during the Drug
War? Probably not. In their zeal to wage the war on drugs, the courts and
the legislature alike have whittled down many of the key rights enumerated
in the Constitution, enabling police officers to search and seize property
on the basis of scanty evidence, "profiles," and anonymous tips. As
far back as 1984, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a dissenting
opinion on a major drug case, complained that the court was transforming
"the Bill of Rights into an unenforced honor code that police may follow at
their discretion."

During the 1980s, as Dan Baum's book "Smoke and Mirrors: The War on
Drugs and the Politics of Failure" makes abundantly clear, the Supreme
Court launched an all-out war on the Fourth Amendment, the provision in the
Bill of Rights intended to keep citizens safe from "unreasonable searches
and seizures."

The Court, as Baum notes, allowed "police (to) stop cars at
roadblocks and search them without a warrant. It let police crack open a
traveler's suitcase or a piece of private mail on the say-so of a barking
dog. It permitted the use of 'courier profiles' including such
characteristics as 'black with Jamaican accent' as sufficient
grounds to search a person in an airport without a warrant. It lets police
spy through windows from low-flying helicopters and then get a warrant on
the basis of what they see. It permits compulsory urine testing for
federal employees. It essentially revoked the Fourth Amendment rights of
schoolchildren by allowing warrantless searches of their lockers and
pockets." The list goes on.

Things have only gotten worse since then: the Court has traded off more of our liberties for drug war expedience, and politicians now routinely compete with one another to propose ever more nonsensical, and draconian, anti-drug
measures from Bob Dole's proposal to force all welfare recipients to
submit to random drug tests to Clinton's plan to force drug tests on kids
applying for driver's licenses. In the last term, the Supreme Court allowed
police to stop and search cars at will on virtually any pretext
whatsoever, from a broken turn signal to a smudge of dirt on a license
plate if they have a hunch the car might be carrying drugs. The Supreme Court, says Mark Kappelhoff, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, "has essentially condoned the trickery that the FBI used in the Jewell case."

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This erosion of civil liberties has wrecked the lives of countless Americans
as innocent as Jewell. A 1991 survey by the Pittsburgh Press
revealed that some 80 percent of those who had their property taken by the
government as part of a drug investigation were never even charged with a
crime.

"Every American ought to be scared to death about how little it takes for
the American government to search you and seize your property," one of
Jewell's attorneys, G. Watson Bryant, told the press. "I am more afraid of
the FBI than I am of being blown up in some park someplace by some lone
bomber," he said. "They are the people who scare the hell out of me."

The next time the pressure is on law enforcement officials to find a suspect and fast in a high-profile case, we can expect more civil liberties to be trampled in the
process. If journalists and politicians want to make sure a Richard Jewell
case doesn't happen again, they need to just say no to the expedient
tactics they've championed in the fight against drugs because if they
don't, it will happen again, no doubt about it.

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Quote of the day

Playing the race card?

"They have exaggerated this phenomenon in order to get support for a political agenda that has
nothing to do with racism. We think the effect of what they are doing is to polarize race relations in this country."

Dianne Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a
Washington-based watchdog group, raising questions about how the Burned Churches Fund, a project of the National Council of Churches, has been spending money that was supposed to help rebuild black churches destroyed by arson. (From "Church-Arson Fund Under Fire From Watchdog Group," in Wednesday's
San Francisco Chronicle)


David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

MORE FROM David Futrelle

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