Welcome to the New America (I’m Scared)
Imagine the following:
An American citizen donates money to a children's charity in Afghanistan. A few months later, he is walking down an American street when federal agents grab him, throw him into a van, and drive away. He is told that President Bush has labeled him an unlawful enemy combatant for providing financial support to a terrorist organization. He is placed in a high-security prison and held there. While there, he is subjected to physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. He requests the legal representation of a trusted lawyer. He is told that he cannot have his lawyer of choice, but rather can only be represented by a member of the military. He invokes Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, particularly humiliating and degrading treatment". He is told that President Bush now has the authority to "interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions", and that the President's determination is that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to him. He demands to be brought before a federal judge in federal court. His application is denied. He demands to see his wife and kids. No luck. He is placed on trial. A confession he made while being tortured is allowed into evidence. He seeks to challenge unlawfully obtained classified evidence the government is using against him, and demands to know the sources of such information. He is told he has no right to such information. He is convicted by a military judge appointed by Donald Rumsfeld and sentenced to death. Unable to appeal his sentence in federal court, he pursues the only route available to him: he asks for clemency from President Bush, the person who labeled him an unlawful enemy combatant. President Bush denies clemency. The man is executed.
Welcome to the New America.
Under the Military Commissions Act of 2006 signed into law enthusiastically by President Bush on October 17, 2006, the following scenario is completely legal.
It is shocking and frightening, what the new law allows. In one swoop of his pen, President Bush:
--- Authorized the executive (himself) to determine who is an "enemy combatant".
--- Eliminated habeas corpus --- a centuries-old right through which a prisoner can challenge the constitutionality of his confinement --- for unlawful enemy combatants by stripping American courts of jurisdiction to hear such appeals.
--- Prohibited any prisoner from invoking the Geneva Conventions --- an international treaty governing the treatment of prisoners since 1929, which the United States has signed and ratified. Instead, President Bush himself can decide (in secret) what abusive interrogation methods he considers permissible.
--- In blatant violation of international law, allowed the use of evidence extracted under cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or as a result of "outrages upon personal dignity, particularly humiliating or degrading treatment", banned under Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
--- Narrowed the scope of the War Crimes Act by not expressly criminalizing acts that constitute "outrages upon personal dignity, particularly humiliating and degrading treatment". This has all but immunized his government officials from prosecution of past war crimes.
--- Permitted civilians captured far from any battlefield to be tried by military commissions (i.e., judges and officers appointed by the President or the Secretary of Defense).
--- Limited the right of charged detainees to be represented by counsel of their choosing.
--- Failed to provide any guarantee that trials will be conducted within a reasonable time.
--- Permitted the use of classified evidence without necessarily allowing the defendant to challenge effectively the "sources, methods or activities" by which the government acquired the evidence.
--- Authorized the death penalty as a possible punishment.
Welcome to New "Land of the Free".
The law stands shamefully beside the worst legislation in this country, from the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts of John Adams to Woodrow Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 in 1942 that forcibly moved Japanese Americans into relocation camps.
We should all be concerned. This government detained people and shipped them to secret prisons around the world to be tortured. It has held hundreds of people in Guantanamo Bay for years, subjecting them to brutal treatment, without bringing formal charges against them (many were eventually released) or granting them access to the American courts. We have been witness to photographic evidence of its humiliating, inhumane abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is this government that passed this outrageous new law legalizing its incessant authoritarian impulses.
The law makes me think of the chilling poem by the German pastor Martin Niemoller about Nazi Germany:
They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Welcome to the New America.