The jackbooted thugs can arrest you without bothering to accuse you
of a crime. They can deprive you of the
right to make a phone call, to receive a visit from your family, or even to see a lawyer. It doesn't matter if
you're innocent or not; our state-sanctioned terrorists can keep you locked up in prison for the rest of your
life without ever granting you your day in court.
But you're an American citizen, you protest.
It makes no difference whatsoever - you have no rights.
After cynically using the September 11th attacks as a pretext to eradicate
one civil liberty after another, the
Bush Administration has finally taken away the single most essential freedom of an American citizen: the right
to due process before a jury of his peers. Classifying 31-year-old Chicagoan Jose Padilla as an Al Qaeda
associate and enemy combatant, Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized his transfer from a federal courthouse
in New York City, where he had been held as a "material witness" on a customs violation since May 8th, to
indefinite military detention at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina.
Though not legally charged, Padilla, who changed his name to Abdullah
al-Mujahir after converting to Islam, is
accused of planning to build and detonate a non-nuclear "dirty" radioactive bomb, possibly in Washington, D.C.
Government officials concede that they have no physical evidence against Padilla-bomb components, manuals,
etc.-. Their case, they admit, relies primarily on information from star canary Abu Zubaydah, an unsavory Al
Qaeda operative whose Guantánamo debriefing sparked last month's flurry of warnings from Tom Ridge. Justice
Department officials, an anonymous official told The New York Times on June 12th, "concluded that they could
not bring a winnable court prosecution, largely because the evidence against [Padilla] was derived from
intelligence sources and other witnesses the government cannot or will not produce in court."
So much for the right to face your accuser.
Padilla theoretically faces prosecution under a military tribunal.
(Back in November, Bush had promised that
tribunals would only be used against foreigners.) But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that even such
kangaroo court justice is probably a long way off: "We're not interested in trying him at this moment." Some
officials say that detainees like Padilla and those being held in the Guantánamo dog pens need not be tried
until the end of the "war on terror"-which could, according to Bush himself, go on forever.
America may well be a safer place because Jose Padilla has been "disappeared,"
in the lexicon of Latin American
death squads. But the manner in which this American has been stripped of his citizenship rights-to a lawyer,
to a speedy trial, to apply for bail-is reminiscent of such totalitarian states as Nazi Germany and the Soviet
Union. What the Bushies are doing to Padilla is an outrage-and it could happen to any of us.
The legal basis for this action is a twisted joke. "Citizens who
associate themselves with the military arm of
the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts, are
enemy belligerents," ruled the Supreme Court in a precedent-setting case in 1942. The United States, however,
is not at war. Congress has not declared war against the Taliban or anyone else. And while Padilla may indeed
have plotted hostile acts at the behest of Al Qaeda, no one accuses him of belonging to the Taliban army. How
could they? The Bushies denied P.O.W. status under the Geneva conventions to Guantánamo inmates by arguing
that the Taliban never had an army.
The war on terror, like the war on drugs, isn't a state of combat.
It's an advertising slogan. The bombing
campaign against Afghanistan is, at most, a police action. And while there are undoubtedly organizations like
Al Qaeda that hate the U.S. and mean harm to Americans, there is no legal basis for denaturalizing Americans
merely because they're accused of belonging to such groups.
Ironically, this vile assault on essential American rights comes on
the heels of what seems to be a previous
Bush Administration abuse of Padilla's rights-he was jailed in New York for a month without being charged with
a crime. Ruling in a different case, New York federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently wrote that "Relying on
the material witness statute to detain people who are presumed innocent under our Constitution in order to
prevent potential crimes is an illegitimate use of the statute." That ruling may have inspired Padilla's
transfer to the South Carolina military lock-up.
You're probably not all that troubled about what happened to Padilla.
You haven't hung out with Islamic extremists,
boned up on your bomb-making skills or fantasized about Chernobylizing the Washington Mall. But don't forget:
a court of law hasn't proved that Jose Padilla did either. And if George W. Bush has his way, it never will.
(Ted Rall's new book, "To Afghanistan and Back," is available