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Would Lindsey Graham Have Sent Richard Jewell to Gitmo?

If not for the Constitution and due process, the hero security guard might have never been vindicated—or seen the light of day.

Credit: Warner Bros./YouTube Screenshot

“And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them: ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.’”

So said Senator Lindsey Graham in 2011 about potential terror suspects apprehended within the U.S. even if they were American citizens. No legal representation. No due process. No constitutional rights. Graham appeared to believe detainees accused of terrorism should automatically be considered guilty because government officials he trusts say so.

In 1996, security guard Richard Jewell was all but accused of being a terrorist. For weeks, the FBI considered him their primary suspect in the bombing of Centennial Park during the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. 

Their evidence? He fit an FBI profile.

That’s it.

There are countless Americans then and now who could end up on some government list based on profiling and other random factors.

Still, if the nation’s top law enforcement agency thinks Jewell or anyone else is guilty of terrorism, they must be, right?

That was certainly the narrative the media spun over two decades ago, convicting Jewell in the court of public opinion when he was actually a hero who saved many lives.

The newly released, Clint Eastwood-directed Richard Jewell portrays the valiant efforts of a security guard (Jewell is portrayed by actor Paul Walter Hauser), who upon discovering an abandoned backpack during a concert, insists that law enforcement follow protocol. The legit Atlanta police think Jewell is overreacting, behaving as the cop wannabe many perceive him as.

But he was right. A pipe bomb was discovered inside the bag and Jewell prevented many deaths by both finding the explosive and ushering concertgoers away from it before it discharged.

For a few days, Jewell was hailed as a hero. But when the FBI began to focus solely on him as a potential suspect, those suspicions snowballed into increasing certainty about an innocent man’s guilt that the evidence simply didn’t bear out. That didn’t stop the FBI from putting Jewell and his mother through hell for weeks in their desperation to find anything that might link him to the crime.

He was never charged. But even when the FBI formally ends its investigation, the primary agent pursuing the case tells both Jewell and his lawyer that he still believes Jewell is guilty.

Seven years later in 2003, Eric Rudolph would be arrested and found guilty of carrying out the bombing.

When Americans thought of terrorism in 1996, images of the Oklahoma City bombing a year prior came to mind, rather than the World Trade Center attacks by Islamic extremists. But after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Americans were understandably so jarred that the George W. Bush administration was able to pass the Patriot Act and other constitutionally dubious legislation, giving government more power and citizens less protection than they had prior.

It wasn’t just Senator Graham who didn’t want to bother with old-fashioned ideals like constitutional rights for detainees during a time of war. In the months and years after 9/11, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lumbered on, many U.S. politicians and certainly most hawkish Republicans would have been inclined to agree with the South Carolina senator.

It’s not hard to imagine in such an environment that someone like Jewell could have been sped off to Gitmo before the right questions were explored or a lawyer could get to him. The film shows cajoling FBI agents trying to avoid reading Jewell his Miranda rights and even attempting to prevent lawyer Watson Bryant (played by Sam Rockwell) from having access to his client.

The Centennial Park bombing was an act of terrorism. Channeling Graham in 2011, some might ask, “Why should we reward the terrorists responsible with our constitutional protections? Even if they are citizens? Do they really deserve it?”

Why not just say, “Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer”?

Had Jewell’s experience happened a few years later, it is possible that since he was a white, Baptist male, he might have avoided a fate similar to many who have ended up in Guantanamo Bay. The terrorist suspects Graham addressed specifically in 2011 were those accused of wanting to join al-Qaeda.

But what if all the circumstances surrounding the bombing were the same except it happened in 2003, not 1996? And instead of “Richard,” a dark-skinned, Muslim-American citizen named “Mohammed” had been that security guard on that fateful day?

In a post-9/11 world, that hero could have very well ended up at some black site with no legal representation, contact with the outside world, or hope of any kind.

At one point, Jewell’s lawyer’s secretary makes an observation in an Eastern European accent, indicating that in the not so distant past she might have known what it’s like to live in a police state.

“Where I come from, when the government says someone’s guilty that’s how you know they’re innocent,” she says. “It’s different here?”

It’s supposed to be.

Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and co-authored the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.

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