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Civil Liberty vs. Bush’s War on Terror
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jose padilla

So, two weeks ago, we all learned that US Officials captured a dude, nearly a month ago, who was planning to attack the US with a "dirty nuke." He was born Jose Padilla, and now is called Abdullah al-Muhajir. He grew up in Chicago, and US Officials say he was a gang member as a teen, though Chicago police say there is no hard evidence at this time to support this. US Officials say he was trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan not only to be a terrorist, but to build explosives. He also, they say, probably studied information about radioactivity. They say, though there has yet to be disclosed any proof that a plan was ever begun, much less carried out, and no evidence of any explosives or equipment to build explosives was found, that he was part of a potential plot to destroy our way of life. So, even though he is a US Citizen, and was not captured in any illicit illegal act or committing any violent crime against US citizens or soldiers, the Bush administration has declared him an "Enemy Combatant" which, under Bush's November 19th declaration, allows us to hold him indefinitely, without benefit of a lawyer, without charging him of any crime, and without any of the guaranteed protections offered to US citizens by the Constitution, or to Prisoners of War by the Geneva Convention.

Okay -- my paranoia about the actions of the Bush administration, especially during this ongoing "War on Terror," can be traced to many different sources. It may be that I watched Oliver Stone's "Salvador" last weekend. It may also be that, two days later, I watched the 4-hour HBO movie, "Fidel." It may be that I struggle with the kind of illogical knee-jerk liberal sensibilities that really only come from rebelling against a relatively comfortable middle-class life with conservative parents. It may be that, during my teen years, I believed fanatically in the ideals of the Reagan government, my conservative parents, my grandfather (a republican state representative), and Rush Limbaugh, and am now horrified by those memories. It may also be that I'm trying to atone for that one afternoon during my Junior year of High school where I told my hippie Physics teacher, Mr. Schmid, that liberals were all fucking stupid, and that Ronald Reagan should be the fifth face on Mount Rushmore. That comment will give me nightmares for the rest of my adult life.

But, whatever the suspected cause of my general suspicion over the motives of George Bush and his cronies, my thoughts about this case in particular can be traced to the following facts:

  1. Jose Padilla is a US citizen.
  2. US law affords all US citizens, no matter what their suspected crime, certain rights.
  3. In declaring him an "enemy combatant," Padilla is denied all of the rights granted him by US law, including the right to legal counsel, and the right to be charged with a crime within a reasonable amount of time.
  4. Accused criminals like John Walker Lindh (the guy who was captured fighting with the Taliban just a few weeks into our incursion into Afghanistan) and Richard Reid (the guy who tried to blow up a plane using a homemade shoe-bomb) are being afforded their legal rights to trial and representation.

What these facts say to me is this: unlike in the Lindh or Reid cases, the government does not have enough evidence on Padilla to actually formally accuse him of a crime and have it stick. Lindh and Reid allegedly made plans whose nature was similar to those of which Padilla is accused, the former both at least attempted to carry them out, and there appears to be much evidence against them. Padilla, so far as we know, never got so far as to even formally plan his supposed attack on the US, and the evidence against him (what we've heard of it, anyway) seems largely circumstantial. So, since the government's evidence is sketchy, it declares Padilla an "enemy combatant" so he can be held indefinitely, without access to legal counsel, while the government builds its case. Further supporting this notion is the fact that, under the rules Bush declared last year for "enemy combatants," military tribunals, and the like, Padilla, a US citizen, cannot be tried by military tribunal. So, he sits in military hands only until the federal government has sufficient hard evidence to formally accuse him of something, or until the "War on Terrorism" is over. Or, forever -- whichever comes first.

For all my ranting, it is possible, maybe even probable, that Padilla is a terrorist, or, at least, a wanna-be terrorist. The media, so far, has painted a pretty convincing picture of his guilt. He has certainly had a history of crime (albeit mostly petty) here in the US, and it appears he did spend time in Pakistan and elsewhere in the middle east, possibly under the tutelage of other suspected terrorists. He could well be a dangerous terrorist, harboring the secrets of a deadly plot. But that doesn't mean we can break the law in an attempt to stop him. The US Constitution grants certain rights to all US citizens, especially those accused of crimes, so that they may defend themselves against false accusation. When we remove those rights, even for those accused of the most despicable and unthinkable crimes, we narrow the gap between ourselves and those who want to destroy our way of life. The United States of America is, or at least is supposed to be, a country of freedoms, of civil liberties, as well laws which protect its people. We gasped in terror when we heard about women, accused of petty crimes without evidence, publicly executed in the Taliban's Afghanistan. While I don't mean to say that the suspension of Padilla's legal rights is akin to that horror, it is a step toward injustice, rather than a step away.

Anyway, all of this goes not only for Padilla, but for all prisoners, accused criminals, and innocent bystanders who are purposefully or unintentionally harmed by our new "War of Terrorism." We must approach our new enemies (or, "evildoers" as the simpleton in the White House explains to us) with the same respect and recognition of the law which we would afford to any other human being. It is not enough to say that we are the land of the free, we must practice it. The accused are innocent until proven guilty, even those accused of terrorism. Human life is precious, including the lives of radical Islamic extremists, whatever angry rednecks may think, or fold into the lyrics of country music. The more we kill and destroy those who hate us without trying to root out the cause of that hate in our own policies and practices, the more we are hated. There's a reason we are despised throughout the world (even by some of our own allies), and suspending the rights of our own citizens because they are accused of a crime does not help matters.

And remember (this may not be a popular stance, but I'm gonna go for it), we were once terrorists, too. Granted, our grand act was throwing a bunch of tea into the harbor, but we also raided armories and engaged in guerilla warfare. It's hardly the same thing as killing thousands of innocent civilians to promote terror, I know, but my point is that we fought our guerilla war so that it would be legally recognized that all men are created equal, and are entitled to all of the protections afforded under the law. If we circumvent these rights, even for accused terrorists, how can we say we are any better than our historical oppressors, or even those "terrorists" we now fight against? Being a patriot, I imagine, is about believing strongly in, and fighting for, the constitution, the liberties, the freedoms, and the laws of the country to which you are loyal. And that means all of the laws, for all of the people, all of the time. Anything less is hypocrisy.

end of essay
David Nett Portrait David is an actor, writer and producer in Los Angeles. He's the founder and editor-in-chief of CSP, and a founding producer of the acclaimed Lucid by Proxy theater company. Despite all this, he still has to hold down a day job in the dot-com world, where he does product and interaction design. His acting has been called "committed," "detailed," "fearless," "hilarious" and "heart-rending" by the LA Times and Backstage West. His writing has been called "articulate and commanding" and "eminently readable" by Flak Magazine. His tenth grade Geometry teacher said he "does not work well in groups." | more essays by David
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