Saturday, June 20, 2009

New Words, Same Problem

One of the things I noticed in my latest trip to Watching America is that members of the world press are starting to be a little less patient with and a little more critical of President Obama. I suspect that part of the reason for that is the novelty has worn off, the honeymoon is over. That said, I also think that the rest of the world has noticed that the big changes President Obama promised have not come to pass on some rather substantial issues, at least not yet.

One of the articles that intrigued me, however, was an opinion piece in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald because it targeted not only President Obama but also the American public for its willingness to dispense with constitutional guarantees when it comes to the "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay.

Because the essay written by Richard Ackland was so thought provoking, I am going to bend the "fair use" rules and quote it extensively:

Poll results released this week show that 52 per cent of American respondents are opposed to closing the detention "facility" at Guantanamo Bay. Thirty-nine per cent thought it should be shut down, which leaves 9 per cent who perhaps thought it should be a little bit open and a little bit closed.

Less than half (48 per cent), according to The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, supported moves by the US President, Barack Obama, to ban "harsh interrogation practices", ie torture. Forty-one per cent thought torture of detainees is not such a bad idea.

Obama's promise to close Guantanamo by January is causing big headaches and is one of the reasons behind the slide in his job approval rating - down from 61 per cent in April to 56 per cent. Americans love their enemy combatants holed up in someone else's country and for the nasty interrogation to be done in offshore black-hole venues. ...

They don't want "enemy combatants" tried in United States criminal courts or put away in homeland jails. No nasty terror people locked up in my parish, thank you very much. Cuba is just fine.

The difficulty is that some of the worst of the worst cannot be tried at all because the only evidence against them has been "coerced". The option of indefinite detention without trial raises as many constitutional problems as the political difficulties created by closing the Cuban detention centre.

Constitutionally it would be extremely difficult to bring these people to the US and not try them. These are the problems Obama faces as he tries to restore America's standing in the world.

None of which is to say that the whole construct of the "enemy combatant" has legal validity. The category didn't exist until the Bush administration coined it and it has now been quietly dropped.

Apart from the September 11 plotters, who else has been designated an enemy combatant? Many detainees were not really enemies at all - in fact people sold to the Pakistanis or the enemies of the Taliban.

People rounded up who were merely unco-operative with the Americans, even doctors who treated the enemies of the US, also became enemies of the US, Hippocratic oath notwithstanding. Except for the Afghans and Iraqis the "enemy combatants" have all been from countries that were not at war with the United States.

They were a bundled-up assortment of suspects, including journalists, students, diplomats, a member of Bahrain's royal family, even people who fought against the Taliban.

In fact, only 5 per cent of those captured in Afghanistan were apprehended by US forces.

Although Mr. Ackland has not explicitly criticized President Obama in this excerpt, implicit in his recital of the facts is the notion that our new president has not shown the leadership this country needs to get out from under the paralyzing fear the last administration drummed into us with color-coded security alerts and the constant repetition of the unholy mantra of "9/11." Yes, he is diligently working to release those detained wrongfully, those who should never have been picked up and transported in the first place. He is not, however, using the same diligence in educating the citizenry about the dreadful mistakes made and the need for an honorable disposition for those unlawfully locked up. Shipping the Uighurs a half a world away where they have no contacts, no community support, no connection because some Americans are fearful of what these men might now do simply reinforces the belief that if they were in Guantanamo Bay they must have done something wrong.

Nor has he made clear that if there is anything exceptional about this nation it is our Constitution and the belief that the rule of law is more important to a democracy than a handsome, likable leader with whom one could enjoy a beer. By backing off on his promise to end the obscenity of the military commission system and to try those who might have indeed been engaged in crimes against this nation in our civilian courts, with all the protections that implies, he is in effect admitting that our Constitution is only appropriate during the good times and only for certain people.

Mr. Ackland's assessment of what this portends for our future is right on the money:

...The point is that implicit in the terrorism laws is an overreach, to create a mechanism whereby anyone can be rounded up and labelled an enemy combatant, tortured, indefinitely detained and kept in a condition of constitutional suspension. [Emphasis added]

So, President Obama, how about it? Got game?

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Anonymous elbrucce said...

...the big changes President Obama promised have not come to pass on some rather substantial issues, at least not yet.

See Faith of Our Fathers (Falling for Scams), above.

10:31 PM  

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