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"Rights at Risk" by David K. Shipler

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NONFICTION: Sounding an alarm about Americans' eroding rights

  • Article by: STEVE WEINBERG
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 17, 2012 - 2:32 PM

Investigative journalists like to say they afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Many of those journalists burn out when the real world defeats their idealism, when they see story after story they write, book after book they complete, fail to make the planet a better place. David K. Shipler apparently will never burn out. His reporting for the New York Times from 1966 to 1988 and his five previous books before his new one -- "Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America" (Alfred A. Knopf, 379 pages, $28.95) -- demonstrate his zeal.

Two of those previous books attempted to influence the realm of international war and peace -- one about Russia, one about the hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors. More recently, Shipler has been focusing on inequality and injustice within the United States, starting with a book about racism, following up with a book about the working poor. This new book is part of a matched set. Last year, Shipler completed "The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties." That book concentrated on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment meant to limit government searches. Shipler had concluded before starting the valuable book that of all the rights supposedly protected by law, the Fourth Amendment right had been most severely compromised through a combination of the so-called wars on drugs and terrorism.

The new book, Shipler says, "travels through adjacent territory," exploring government intrusions into the rights of citizens charged with crimes. The book enters the realm of my own investigative reporting concentration -- the inexcusable number of innocent women and men convicted of crimes because of police coercion (physical and psychological), misconduct by prosecutors, defense lawyers who are inept, uncaring judges and other systemic shortcomings.

Later in the book, Shipler slips away from the criminal justice system to explain and expose the deportation from the United States of legal immigrants, absurd limits on freedom of speech and limits on behavior of students from kindergarten through high school and into college.

Throughout the book, Shipler's examples illustrating the big ideas are well chosen. Some are well known, some less so. But they all resonate.

Shipler hopes the American experiment regarding liberty (some would call it "democracy") is not tanking. The experiment succeeded, more or less, "because of the capacity for self-correction, that vital quality of a decent society." But, he asks, can self-correction continue when freedom of speech is limited, when legislators approve unjust laws, when minority interests are seen as a nuisance instead of a sacred trust? What Shipler wants is for those in power to observe the principles of the Constitution, "whose mechanism of self-correction is a lasting gift if we keep it faithfully."

Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter and the author of eight nonfiction books.

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