As election season reaches its pinnacle, conspiracy theorists rise to the surface en masse, slinging loosely-woven theories about this candidate or that, about this major event and that minor one. Usually, I pretty much roundly dismiss these unlikely theories. But this year, which will be remembered by me as the year congress officially voted to rescind the right of habeas corpus, I find myself wondering if some sort of conspiracy mightn't explain just what the hell has happened, and why the American people aren't up in arms about it.
It's not that I actually believe that the Republican "compromise" on the Military Commissions Act is the result of some sort of right-wing conspiracy. But, just as an exercise, let's explore the idea. Say an administration had tried to detain a few hundred individuals, many not even captured by American police or soldiers, but rather handed over to American troops by warlords and mercenaries in return for cash, for three or four or more years without charge or trial. Say, further, that the hypothetical administration was also accused of abusing and/or torturing those detainees during their charge-less detention. And say that, after three or four years of this, the Supreme Court finally stepped in and told the administration that they did not have the authority to circumvent U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions with its detention and pseudo-trial plan. Say, just for the sake of exploration, that administration decided to go to Congress to try to get permission for a whole host of legal and procedural loopholes, including warrant-less wiretapping, long-term detentions, and military tribunals which follow neither the rules of civilian criminal procedure or the code of military justice. What might the administration do to ensure victory?
Well, and, again, this is just an intellectual exercise, this hypothetical administration might float a bill to congress so abhorrent, which so tramples the constitution and spits in the eyes of the Geneva Conventions, that anyone in the Senate who retains a shred of human compassion (which may or may not be a majority, depending upon temporal proximity to election season) must refuse to sign-off on it. Secret friends of the administration, masquerading as enemies, then propose a "compromise" -- a bill still far to the rigid right of the general populace, but which, because of the totalitarian extremism of the original bill, does indeed look, at first glance, like a win (or at least not so great a loss) for civil liberties. It's a classic negotiation tactic -- start with an offer so extreme that it can't possibly be accepted, and grudgingly negotiate down to what you wanted in the first place. Everyone feels like they've created in a satisfying compromise, but what in truth has happened is that you've gotten what you wanted all along.
The "compromise" bill recently signed into law by the President is just that kind of false compromise. I'm not saying it was a conspiracy between the Bush administration and the so-called "rogue" Republicans often represented by John McCain. But this reported "compromise" is a knife in the very heart of the fundamental rights under the law of every human being. The "compromise" still stomps on a detainee's right to challenge his or her own detention in a court of law, and it still holds in question whether people ostensibly on the other side of the War on Terror deserve to be treated as human beings. Fundamentally, this bill still says that, should the administration in power (now or in the future) decide that an individual is a non-military or "illegal" combatant or a terrorist, or has offered any level of material support to anyone suspected of being a terrorist, that individual may be incarcerated without charge or trial for any length of time with no avenue by which to challenge that incarceration. Further, that individual may be abused in any way which is not clearly defined in specific language as torture and, if that individual is ever lucky enough to get a trial, he or she will have no right to view or dispute any of the evidence against him or her which is deemed sensitive.
Bush's insistence that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions must be clarified to protect American interrogators is a barely concealed attempt to learn what level of abuse, of base cruelty toward other human beings, is now considered acceptable under the current American climate of fear. Common Article 3 prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture ... outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." For President Bush to say this is difficult to understand is to admit that he does not see these detainees as human beings, worthy of basic human consideration. To demand an itemized list of what acts may or may not be perpetrated simply states that the United States is unable to obey the spirit of the most low-level, base-line contention that human beings should be treated with a modicum of dignity, that it is interested only in obeying the letter of the law, not because it is the right thing to do, but rather because the Supreme Court has said that it must.
Similarly, the suspension of habeas corpus, the right under the law for an individual to challenge his or her detention, pulls the rug from under our entire understanding of a justice system. How can any defendant mount the kind of defense to which he or she is constitutionally entitled (or entitled by the Geneva Conventions, in the case of non-citizens) if he or she cannot hear the evidence against him or her, or, in some cases, is not even allowed to know what the charges against him or her might be? The President and the bill's proponents say that, under this new law, terrorists can finally be brought to justice. What justice forbids the accused even knowing of what they are charged, or why? Guantanamo deputy camp commander Colonel Cline has been quoted as saying, "some of the prisoners are victims of circumstance, caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time." Yet none of these individuals can, under this law, even challenge their detention. They've been accused of no crime, so far as they know, and they can be detained and found guilty in that state of ignorance because this new law says that if the President suspects you are a terrorist, you no longer have the right to know your charge, view the evidence against you, or challenge that suspicion in court.
Almost every Republican congressman, and (unbelievably) twelve Democrats, voted for this bill and helped make it law, and that makes me absolutely heartsick. A week from today, it is possible that the power in congress may shift to the Democratic party. Let us hope that, should that power shift, the new stewards of Congress have the simple respect for justice, for the law and for human beings that the current Congressional leadership, and the Bush Administration, clearly lack.