Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Brilliant Lights, Dim Bulbs
The Supreme Court's 2003-2004 term is set to end in about three weeks. That means any day now, we're going to get the court's ruling on the cases of the Guantanamo detainees, Jose Padilla, and Yaser Hamdi, and we'll find out, as I wrote last week, whether the Supremes think we're still a nation of laws and not of men, or if that concept is one of the things that changed after September 11. Last March, the Boston Phoenix published an article about the cases (which I just came across today) in which the author makes a point about just how important these cases are, and what's at stake.

We have two types of rights in this country. One type is our familiar civil rights: the right to privacy, the right be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, to come and go as we please, to be free of racial profiling, to read whatever library books we like in peace. Everybody knows that these rights are under assault by the Justice Department through the Patriot Act and other means. The other type of rights, which the author calls "threshold rights," are also under assault, and this assault is far more dangerous. These rights are structural, which makes any changes in them extremely far-reaching.

Threshold rights enable civil society to know what government is doing and to rein in abuses. Think of it this way: temporary restrictions on some forms of privacy enable the government to know what you are doing, which is troubling enough. Threshold rights enable you to know what the government is doing, and that’s why they form the core of democratic society. The degree to which a society protects threshold rights speaks to whether it is free and open, and whether self-correction can occur without violence. If the press is free, the electorate has open elections, and the courts are performing their sworn duty, even a president who tries to assume the powers of an emperor can be dealt with.
The article goes on to detail the ways in which the Justice Department has sought to erode these threshold rights, especially the right of habeas corpus, which requires the executive branch to disclose the legal basis for the detention of a prisoner and produce that person in public, so a court may decide whether the detention is constitutional. It's "the brilliant light that protects Americans from the gulag." And Ashcroft has been trying like hell since September 11 to turn it off. Without the right of habeas corpus, it's a short step to Soviet-style show trials--confess and you get a public trial; refuse and you go into the military justice system and you may never be seen again. There's evidence that the Justice Department has already played such a game with a couple of accused terrorists, Iyman Faris and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri.

This is an important article, albeit a lengthy one. Read it before the decisions come down.

Recommended Reading: I could have made Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel one of the choices on my poll about right-wing media celebrities who deserve an ass-kicking. Parker, you may remember, is the columnist who suggested, as the Iraq war devolved into horrible chaos last April, that a good solution would be to "nuke the Sunni Triangle." She can usually be found putting a benign face on the self-evidently awful, and always with the chirpy, self-satisfied tone of a suburban mom who thinks she's well-informed because she watches Fox News during her 15 minutes on the treadmill in the morning. Take her report from inside HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's surveillance command post during the Reagan funeral. She describes the sophistication of the surveillance techniques used to monitor activity of all sorts in the DC area, across the country, and around the world. She even tells how Thompson called up a video image of her own house with a couple of clicks. She calls the technology "chillingly Orwellian," but just when you think she's finally ready to consider the real-world implications of living in what amounts to a Panopticon, she decides it's all just fine with her: "So it goes in the age of terrorism." The government isn't watching you--it's watching out for you, which makes it OK. (If her allotted word-count wasn't already used up, you'd half-expect her to add something like, "If you don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to worry about.")

For those of us not converted to Parker's childlike faith in the good intentions of the government, her piece is useful for showing just how closely we're all being watched. Excuse me--watched out for.

I think I'll go out on my deck and flip the bird at the sky.

One more thing: I wrote on Sunday that I'd like to see mainstream people of faith start to stand up against the fundie nonsense coming out of the American government, and against the policies such nonsense justifies. A group called Faithful America is making an effort. They're trying to raise money to run an ad on Arab television apologizing for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and I applaud them for it.

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