Thursday, November 24, 2005

Oh Good, now we are safe...

Yesterday, the US Justice Department indicted Jose Padilla with "conspiracy to 'murder, maim, and kidnap' people overseas". He was additionally charged with aiding foreign terrorist activities abroad by providing material and logistical support. There's plenty written about him elsewhere, so I won't go into a whole lot of detail. There was also an excellent piece done on This American Life a few years ago (just do a search on their website for Padilla). Very briefly, Jose Padilla is an American citizen who was arrested three years ago in Chicago, for what Ashcroft declared was conspiracy to commit terrorism. The only hitch was that they never charged him with anything, and kept him in a Navy Brig for three years throughout which they huffed and puffed about providing him a lawyer, and a day in court. Why? Well, according to the US government, it is because he is an "enemy combatant"--a person with no basic civil rights or access to due process. He is an enemy combatant. Fine. Of course, again...he wasn't arrested in the mountains of Afghanistan, combating American soldiers. He was arrested at O'Hare.

Over the past three years, every time I have read about Padilla it has been buried in page 20--a short byline crunched in amongst the larger tales of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, all of these stories where the US Justice Department has taken incredulous liberties to trample on our constitutional rights, have been shadowed by Iraq. There's the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was arrested by immigrant officials at the US-Canada border and shipped off to Syria where he was tortured for a number of months. There's Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, a US citizen who was being detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia. He was indicted recently with evidence from the Saudi government. There's the very different, yet equally apalling story of Hemant Lakani who was arrested on terrorism charges that was based entirely on an involved and convulated sting operation that never connected him to any terrorist groups. (It's an interesting, complicated story that I encourage you to look up if you don't know it already). While each of these cases are very different, they share the collective disregard for civil liberties prevalent in the Patroit Act and our new policy for fighting terrorism.

On the one hand, I do emphatize. 9/11 has fundamentally changed how we understand potential terrorists. I understand that we can no longer afford to wait until terrorist acts are committed. Surely, no one is disputing that we have to be vigilant and efficient with our nation's security. But let's not congratulate Ashcroft, Gonzales and the US Justice Department just yet. It is nothing to be proud of when our government picks and chooses which laws to apply and to whom, and when it invents terms like "enemy combatant" to side-step international human rights laws. Padilla's case sets a precedent. It tells us that the Bush administration can choose to pluck any one of us, from anywhere, hold us in a cell for years and never tell us why. This war on terrrorism is not a new concept. Nations have always fought to protect its citizens from terrorists and violence. And history has also shown us plentifully that you cannot disregard an individual's civil rights and hope to nuture justice for all simultaneously.


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