Sep 12, 2005
Last week, a federal court of appeals ruled that the government has the right to imprison a U.S. citizen for as long as it wants – without ever charging that person with a crime and putting that person on trial.
This ruling came out of the case of Jose Padilla, who the Bush administration had arrested more than three years ago, in the wake of 9-11, on charges that he had plotted with al-Qaeda to detonate a "dirty bomb." This arrest was made at a time when the Bush administration was in the middle of its witch hunt against immigrants of Arab descent, rounding up thousands of people, and then eventually being forced to let them all go when it became clear that there was no evidence whatsoever linking them to any crime. Of those who the Bush administration managed to bring to trial, such as the four people in Detroit, the government case was such a fiasco that even some conservative judges and prosecutors denounced the U.S. Justice Department for its attempted miscarriages of justice.
Clearly, the so-called case that the Bush administration had against Padilla was no different. Prosecutors had no credible witnesses or evidence linking Padilla to any "dirty bomb," and very quickly, after the usual hue and cry from the news media died down, more and more the case looked like the figment of some government bureaucrat's imagination. So, the Bush administration tried a different tack. It claimed that Padilla was an enemy combatant, because for a time he had lived in the Middle East. And it went on to maintain that according to "The Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution," which Congress passed after September 11, it had the right to hold "enemy combatants" for an indefinite period of time.
In other words, the Bush administration maintained that anyone it decided to call an "enemy combatant" had no legal rights at all, no right to a trial, not even any right to see a lawyer – Bill of Rights, or no Bill of Rights. It said that Congress had given them that right – and the three judge panel of the Court of Appeals says that it agrees.
Now the case will go to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling, it will uphold that the government will have a much easier job of setting up anyone it decides to, anyone who dares organize against their rotten wars, against government repression, and other attacks against ordinary people. All the government would have to say is label that person as a "terrorist" and "enemy combatant" – and it won't even have to manufacture evidence, or blackmail witnesses into cooperating in order to go to trial – because there won't be a trial!
Of course, this won't be the first time that the government has tried to pull that kind of stunt. It did similar things during other repressive periods – such as the Red Scares after World War I, or the McCarthy period in the late 1940s and 50s – not to speak of the legal lynching of black people throughout most of this country's history.
In the end, many of the repressive laws and court decisions that allowed this were overturned. But it wasn't because of who the judges or politicians were, but because of big movements by ordinary people.
The lesson is: the only rights working people have are the rights that they are willing to fight to defend.