May 22, 2005

Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power

As I indicated recently, Guantanamo holds a place of very special significance in Bush's "War on Terror." While most people sense that Guantanamo represents something that matters, and that matters a great deal, almost no one will be able to identify exactly why, if you were to question them on the point. What follows is at least part of that badly needed explanation.

The best and most comprehensive coverage of these issues of which I am aware is that provided by the invaluable and indefatigable Jacob Hornberger of The Future of Freedom Foundation. If you do not already visit that site regularly (and support its work, if you are able to), I very strongly recommend that you make it a daily stop.

For necessary background, you might begin with Hornberger's article explaining in detail why the writ of habeas corpus is the fundamental right for the political system originally envisioned by the founders of the United States. As our Supreme Court expressed it in 1969, the writ of habeas corpus is "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action."

With that central point fixed firmly in our minds, consider this excerpt from Hornberger's article about the Jose Padilla case:
As I have been writing for the past two years, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Jose Padilla case. The power assumed by the U.S. military and the Bush administration in the Padilla case constitutes what is arguably the most ominous and dangerous threat to the freedom of the American people in our lifetime.


Jose Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport almost three years ago on suspicion of having conspired to commit terrorism. The ordinary procedure -- the procedure that has been followed in the United States since our nation's founding -- would have been to charge him with federal crimes dealing with terrorism, indict him, bring him to trial before a jury, and, if convicted, sentence him. That's the way the U.S. criminal justice system has worked for more than 200 years.

With Padilla, the Pentagon has tried to do something completely different, something that is alien to the American way of life, something that was obviously modeled on the procedures employed by the military regimes in Chile and Argentina, many of whose military officers were trained in detention and torture techniques by the Pentagon's very own School of the Americas, during their "wars on terrorism" in the 1980s. Securing a statement from President Bush that Jose Padilla was an "enemy combatant" in the "war on terrorism," the Pentagon took the position that it could bypass the entire federal criminal justice system set up by the Constitution, including rights and guarantees stretching all the way back to Magna Carta. These included habeas corpus, due process of law, trial by jury, and right to counsel.

The reason the Padilla doctrine is -- and should be -- so critically important to the American people is that if the federal courts uphold it, the doctrine will apply not just to Padilla but to all Americans. The reason that the Pentagon has limited the exercise of such power to only one American arrested on U.S. soil is obvious: it attracts much less attention from the public and, therefore, does not appear so threatening.

But make no mistake about it: If the Pentagon's power to arrest Americans for terrorism and punish them without federal court interference is upheld by the courts, the floodgates will be open to omnipotent military power in America. American life will never be the same again.
Life will be transformed by such power in ways unimaginable. No one will be safe from military arrest, including newspaper editors, government critics, and dissidents. Any person -- any person -- deemed to be an "enemy combatant" and taken into military custody will have no recourse to avoid punishment, except for the "good faith" of the Pentagon, the government organization that is responsible for plunging this nation into one of the most shameful torture, sex abuse, rape, and murder scandals in its history, not to mention the resulting cover-up.

There can be no doubt that the Pentagon is salivating over the possibility of wielding the same power over U.S. citizens that it has been wielding over foreigners ever since 9/11. This includes the power to send detainees to U.S. gulags in different parts of the world for indefinite detention and punishment without interference from the courts. It includes the outsourcing of detainees to friendly authoritarian regimes so that they, rather than U.S. officials, can do the torturing on behalf and for the benefit of the U.S. government. In fact, the Pentagon itself would admit that the very reason it set up its primary gulag in Cuba was to avoid the constraints of the Constitution and interference from the federal judiciary in its treatment of prisoners and detainees.
And that, in brief, is why Guantanamo is so crucial to the Bush's administration's goals in its war, a war that will be never-ending if it has its way: Guantanamo symbolizes the Bush administration's desire for omnipotent power -- for the administration to be able to do whatever it wants, with no oversight or interference by anyone, including the federal judiciary and including those restraints imposed by the Constitution itself.

In this manner, especially when coupled with the great danger represented by the Padilla case, the Bush administration seeks to place itself beyond all restraint derived from any source, and to make itself all-powerful. If it is successful, that will definitively and absolutely spell the end of liberty in America -- and the rest is only a matter of time, and of details. In this sense, it is entirely appropriate that Guantanamo is located where another omnipotent dictator already holds sway.

We should also note a recent mention of the Padilla case from earlier this month on Hornberger's blog (scroll down to May 9):
A front-page story in today's New York Times should give thinking Americans a good idea of how the Pentagon is leading America in a horrible direction with respect to its Padilla doctrine. With the Padilla doctrine, the Pentagon is fighting for the authorization to pick up any American, label him a suspected terrorist, and detain him forever without having to go through the hassles of prosecuting him in federal court and according him such constitutional guarantees as due process of law and trial by jury.

The New York Times article points out that indefinite detentions of suspected criminals, "a relic of the Mao era," are the way of life in communist China. The article states: "Locked inside more than 300 special prisons are an estimated 300,000 prostitutes, drug users, petty criminals and other political prisoners who have been stripped of any legal rights."

Bringing to mind the U.S. military's torture and sex abuse at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, a Chinese prisoner stated that "guards often jolted inmates with electric cattle prods. Menstruating women were shackled standing against a board and then prevented from sleeping or going to the bathroom for several days."

As we have long maintained here at FFF, a Pentagon win in the Padilla case will transform American society in ways that the American people cannot even begin to imagine. Ironically, just when the Pentagon is fighting hard to move America in more communist direction, the communist regime in China "this year is expected to begin privately considering whether, and how, to change" its system of indefinite detention.
Just to repeat for emphasis: this must be the most horrifying irony of all. As China might begin "considering whether, and how, to change" its system of indefinite detention, our own government seeks to increase the reach of the identical policy -- so that it includes every American, including all of us here at home.

These are among the fundamental issues that neither the Bush administration nor its many defenders will ever acknowledge or discuss, and which our major media will never trouble themselves to explain to you. But such determined avoidance does not diminish the reality of these policies, or of their implications -- and it does nothing to diminish the ungraspably great danger we now face, a danger, I stress, not from any external enemy, but from our own leaders.

And these are among the reasons I consider Bush unquestionably to be the worst and most dangerous president of my lifetime -- and perhaps in all of American history. I only pray that irreversible damage does not occur before Bush leaves office. But I have to admit, very unhappily, that I am not prepared to place a bet on that proposition -- not any longer. The indisputable desire of this administration for absolute power over every single one of us cannot be denied. Bush and his defenders may refuse to acknowledge them, and our media may fail to discuss them, but those are the facts -- if one is willing to face them, and to admit what they mean.

Whether Bush and his enablers will admit it or not, in fact the policies they seek to implement would make the United States itself into one gigantic Guantanamo: where any one of us can be detained indefinitely merely upon the word or desire of one person, with no charges ever filed against us, and where we can be abused or tortured, and perhaps even murdered, at will. And no one and nothing would be able to stop or even question them. That's the future they want so desperately -- and I suggest that you always keep it in mind and never, ever forget it.