Archive for Thursday, August 22, 2002

Protecting rights is patriotic duty

August 22, 2002


Without question, Charles Manson is a really, really bad man who deserves to spend the rest of his unnatural days behind bars.

Know what? Mr. Helter Skelter got a trial.

Jeffrey Dahmer had naked boys running from his apartment and a human head in the freezer.

Know what? The Cannibal got a trial.

Yaser Esam Hamdi may be as really, really bad as Dahmer and Manson, for all we know but that's the problem. We don't know anything because this American citizen is being held incommunicado in a Norfolk Navy brig as an unlawful enemy combatant.

Hamdi is not an illegal alien he's not even a naturalized citizen. He was born in Baton Rouge, La., although that foreign-sounding name and those Saudi parents are certainly reasons to suspend someone's birthrights. (That's sarcasm, by the way, for those of you who are satirically challenged.)

Last time I checked, Louisiana was still a part of the United States of America and still comes under the constructs of the U.S. Constitution. But oh, I forgot. We're at war. National security gets to trump the Constitution these days, even if the links between suspect and the enemy are so obtusely tangential that you need an advanced degree in geometry to figure them out.

Would someone in the Bush administration please explain why Hamdi's case is different from that of John Walker Lindh, the California-born "American Taliban" who was indicted in federal court and allowed to enter a plea that means he'll be out of prison in 20 years? Both were apprehended by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan while allegedly fighting for the Taliban. Why the discrepancy in treatment?

Is it because Lindh didn't know jack about al-Qaida and Hamdi might? If that's the case, how is it that Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan extraction thought to be the 20th hijacker from Sept. 11, has a trial date set for January in federal court, yet Hamdi can't even get access to an attorney?

Representatives of the U.S. Justice Department argued last week before U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar that Hamdi doesn't merit the right to legal representation guaranteed under the Constitution because he's not an accused criminal. Holding him, without charges and without access to an attorney, is perfectly legal because Hamdi was captured on the battlefield, allegedly fighting for the enemy, and the United States can darn well hold him until hostilities end.

OK, then what about alleged "dirty bomb" plotter Jose Padilla? An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that the U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn, reared in Chicago's Logan Square area, arrested on American soil is a "small fish" with no ties to any al-Qaida cells, here or abroad. So why is HE still being held in a South Carolina brig, without an attorney and without being charged with anything?

If Hamdi and Padilla turned their backs to the nation of their birth to plot and scheme and even fight against U.S. military forces, then they can rot in federal prison for the rest of their days. But the nation of their birth must not turn its back on the very system that made this the greatest democracy of the 21st century. The Constitution. Due process. Confronting one's accuser. A trial, in open court.

Yet Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is apparently so enamored with this system of "detention now, rights maybe never" that he's proposed establishing camps for U.S. citizens that the Justice and Defense departments label "enemy combatants," meaning that people could be detained indefinitely without access to the courts.

Today it's men with foreign names who chose to separate themselves ideologically if not physically from their native land. Tomorrow it could be people named Johnson or Garcia or Lee, whose transgressions might be to question what's being done in the name of national security.

All this is happening with nary a whimper, much less a groundswell of protest, from society as a whole. Here, in a country born of dissent, a nation that rose from the embers of revolution against a government of abuses, even asking questions is looked upon as unpatriotic.

We're at war, you know.

Jill "J.R." Labbe is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her e-mail address is

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