Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Habeas Corpus -- Bush's "Enemy"?

One theme that recurs in any discussion of the professional human political animal is the attempts to manipulate the emotions, fears, and passions of the general public. Much time, talent, and money are spent shaping these elements in such a way that the voting population is lulled into surrendering individual principles for a collective self-interested stance – as shaped or defined by the class of individuals whose main concern is reelection to office.

This theme was taken up in 1882 by the Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen. His “An Enemy of the People” is a scathing critique of what he saw as a culture of political hypocrisy in his native Norway. The story revolves around a town medical doctor’s discovery that his community’s prospective economic salvation, a rebuilt health spa, actually would endanger rather than improve the health of paying visitors. But when the doctor proposes that the city fathers announce and the local newspaper publish the findings, he finds that the community quickly closes ranks against him. He is first fired from his medical position, then silenced and shunned by both the business community and the town’s “progressives,” and finally his home is attacked by a stone throwing mob calling him “an enemy of the people.” He is, in effect, stripped of all his rights without so much as an informal court hearing into the circumstances of and the science behind his claims.

Ibsen clearly was irritated by the subterfuge of proclaiming clean governance while, in truth, actual governance worked to suppress inconvenient truth, especially when the real truth would have adverse economic ramifications for the professional politicians. He once summed the matter this way: “In Norway, they do not trouble much about liberty but only about liberties – a few more or less, according to their party.”

This week, the Bush administration once again is pressing ahead to tighten its grip on the exercise of fundamental constitutional rights that it finds inconvenient in its preferred methodology for waging its “global war on terror.”

Most media noted that on November 13, the Bush Justice Department argued before the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Appeals Court that the 440 detainees at Guantanamo could no longer pursue habeas corpus appeals in federal district courts because the Military Commissions Act of 2006 retroactively denied that right to all those accused of acts of terror against the U.S.

Fewer media noted that on the same day Justice Department lawyers in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, were argued that the Military Commissions Act also empowers the government to hold indefinitely any immigrant, legal or illegal, arrested on suspicion of terrorism. As with the Guantanamo 440, those arrested would not be permitted to challenge their detention in civilian courts – a right heretofore normally accorded all U.S. residents – including alien residents.

This single-minded pursuit of ways to expand the curtailment of individual rights belies the president’s assurances that he heard the nation’s voice November 7. This year’s election was a referendum not only on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but a repudiation of the administration’s war of fear. The public expects this Congress to claw back the constitutional and statutory rights that the Bush administration grabbed for itself – or was meekly handed on a silver platter by a compliant Congress – over the past six years.

At stake is the survival of the oldest civil right in the western world and the foundation of constitutional democracy: the right to “present one’s body” before an impartial interlocutor to contest the basis for unexplained, secret, or wrongful incarceration.

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