800 years of liberty down the drainLast month, I praised a group of Republican senators who obstructed President Bush's attempts to legalize torture, degradation and other inhumane behavior antithetical to American values.
It looks like I spoke too soon. Several of them compromised with the White House to strike a deal that wasn't much of a compromise. As the business magazine The Economist (hardly a wild-eyed leftist publication) described the bill that passed: Not only does it permit the CIA to continue its harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists in secret prisons abroad, it also strips foreign detainees of one of the civilised world's most ancient legal protections—the right to challenge their detention in court.
Habeus corpus, the protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, is arguably the most fundamental right in a free society. In fact, it's more fundamental than the right to vote or freedom of speech because those don't really matter if you're stuck in jail indefinitely, for no justifiable reason and with no recourse.
Some people snidely dismiss accusations of torture in Guantanamo Bay. There is systematic torture against the people held in Gitmo. It's not necessarily physical abuse by US soldiers, which probably is not systematic. It's the mere fact that George W. Bush has ordered they be detained indefinitely, for no justifiable reason and with no recourse.
Some critics have objected to the fact that I've referred to Gitmo as a kidnapee camp. But really, how can it be described as anything else? These people were arrested outside the US, where American law has no jurisdiction. They've been held against their will. They've been held without being charged with any crime. They have absolutely no idea when or if they will be released. They have absolutely no idea when or if they will even be charged with a crime. They have absolutely no recourse to making any of these things happen. In what way are these people NOT kidnapees?
They are not prisoners of war, according to the president. They are not common criminals because they're not being given the same judicial process. To describe them as anything other than kidnapees is a betrayal of the English language.
"But they are terrorists!" I can hear people screaming at me.
"How do you know?" is my response.
That's precisely why these people need to be subject to due process. If they are evil terrorists who were planning to attack America, present the evidence in a real court. Then a conviction will be secured and these guys will (legally) be put away for life.
Some contend that these people are foreigners and thus aren't subject to protections of the US Constitution. This is a gross hypocrisy. If US constitutional protections don't apply to foreigners, then how could US criminal law (the supposed reason they were detained in the first place) apply to those same foreigners?
Given suspected terrorists real trials would have an impact in several ways. President Bush claims that the threat by Islamic extremists is real but most people around the world think this is grossly overblown. This is because everything is being kept secret (as usual for this administration) so we are left to take the Bush administration's word for it. A word which hasn't much value anymore.
Public trials would present evidence against these people in a true public legal forum. The world would see that the terrorist threat is real and that there really are bad people out there. It would bolster the administration's credibility. The fact that they refuse to do so is telling.
Right now, America is seen as a lawless nation internationally because of things like Guantanamo Bay. Bringing Gitmo into the universe of legality would help improve America's battered image around the world.
This is important not because of some mythical global popularity contest. This is important because anti-American hatred is what fuels anti-American terrorist sentiment. Not all anti-American terrorist sentiment is based on rational criticisms but much of it is. The idea that we can keep people detained for years without trial or chage makes us seem more like a third world dictatorship than the beacon of freedom President Bush would have us believe.
The 'compromise' essentially scraps 800 years of the most fundamental liberty you can have in a free society.
"I'm not going to support a bill that's blatantly unconstitutional...that suspends a right that goes back to [the Magna Carta in] 1215," declared Arlen Specter, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—though he ended up voting for the bill after his amendment failed.
Even Britain's George III, from whom the US colonies seceded, had to respect habeus corpus. But in the name of 'the war for freedom,' America's George II thinks he doesn't have to.