This week I’ve found myself by turns angry and sad about politics for the first time since the Israeli bombardment of civilians in Lebanon. This time the reason, I think, is that I had begun to believe that the right wing assault on the foundations of democracy, freedom, and human rights had ground to a halt and the pendulum would swing the other way. Instead the US Senate has this week passed legislation which would allow torture and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects.
What checks and balances are built into the system? If the President and the Pentagon say that you are an unlawful enemy combatant (no matter how they come to that conclusion, and with no owness on them to produce reasons or evidence) then you are one as far as this law is concerned.
That means that you can be locked up and tortured, even if you are a US citizen and you have never left US soil. You have no right to appeal this ruling and you will be tried under a system (military tribunals in some form) which will not constitute a fair trial by a jury of your peers. If you aren’t a US citizen you need never see a trial of any kind. Habeus Corpus, the foundation of Western defence against tyranny for a thousand years, has been thrown out the window.
Those who mistreated prisoners and were involved in the military commissions were staring down the barrel of war crimes charges:
the Supreme Court in Hamdan deliberately laid at least the theoretical foundation for high officials in the Bush administration to be charged with war crimes. They expressly ruled that the military commissions violate those Conventions, and if any prisoners were to be executed by virtue of commissions which violated Common Article 3, or if detainees are deliberately and systematically mistreated in violation of that provision, that would be a war crime, by definition.
- the current legislation provides a retrospective get out of jail free card.
There’s clearly a feeling that in difficult times, under the threat of terrorism, we must trust our leaders not to abuse the powers we give them to protect us.
What comes to my mind is a case in Australia about a year ago. A US peace and environmental activist, Scott Parkin, had his visa revoked and he was deported from Australia. This was done on the basis of a report by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to the Foreign Minister, Phillip Ruddock, which was never made public. It was clearly a travesty of justice. There was no evidence that Scott was anything except a pacifist and campaigner for the environment and against war profiteering. He represented no threat to Australia of any kind, but he did represent a possible embarassment to the government because of his opposition to Halliburton.
If we allow politicians to have despotic powers – and there’s no doubt that these are despotic powers, then we have nothing but our faith in their goodwill to protect us. It has been proven over and over again that such power corrupts even the best rulers, and there is no evidence that Bush is in that category.
What can a President not do when a phone call to an appointee at the Pentagon can have an opponent, a witness, or simply an inconvenience arrested and tortured?