A threat to all citizens
PRESIDENT BUSH is fond of saying that this nation's enemies in the war against terrorism hate American freedom, but if the US Supreme Court lets the Bush administration get away with detaining US citizens for an indefinite period without due process, there will be much less freedom for the terrorists to hate -- and for Americans to defend.
That is what the cases of Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi are, at core, about. Louisiana-born Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan by Afghan allies among the forces Americans were fighting there. Brooklyn-born Padilla was arrested in Chicago on suspicion of being involved in a terrorist bomb plot. But the government has not charged either with anything other than being an enemy combatant. For two years, neither has had the chance that all citizens should have to go before a court and answer whatever charges the government has placed against them.
In arguments before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Padilla's attorney, Jennifer Martinez, summed up what the government wants from the justices: "unlimited power to imprison any American anywhere at any time without trial simply by labeling him an enemy combatant."
The administration says it has the right to do this based on a resolution passed by Congress a week after Sept. 11. It authorizes the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against organizations or persons involved in planning attacks or aiding terrorists. But Justice Breyer is right to ask why indefinite military detention is necessary and appropriate "in a country . . . that has regular criminal proceedings" to adjudicate "a claim that `I'm the wrong person'?"
One case that throws light on the Padilla and Hamdi detentions is that of Captain James Yee -- another Muslim American whom the government was quick to suspect of serious crimes involving terrorists. Yee was the Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo detention center for enemy combatants. He was held in the brig for 76 days while the military investigated suspicions of espionage. The most serious charge ever brought against him, however, was mishandling classified materials -- and that was eventually dropped.
Yee is a free man today, with all mention of the fiasco removed from his military file because he at least had recourse to the military justice system. The government wants to deny Hamdi and Padilla their day in court, civil or military, even though no neutral party has been able to examine the strength of the case against them.
Sept. 11 changed much in this country and alerted both Congress and the executive branch to the need to be more resourceful in combating shadowy and lethal enemies. But the Bush administration has not made the case, and cannot, that the war against terrorism requires a suspension of the Bill of Rights.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.