Let me begin with a broad disclaimer. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist party. I am not a whacko, tripped out, bleeding heart liberal, but neither do I ascribe to the presumptious arrogance of the neo-conservative. I am, or at least I strive to be, measured and deliberate in my political positions. When reached, they are stances of conscious tempered, as indeed responsible politics must be, by the principles of national interest. I am firm, but not obstinate. When it became a virtue to remain forever unchanging in one's opinion I do not know, but it is a development I greet with little enthusiasm. Compromise is a talent of the highest order, American's great gift according to Shelby Foote, and yet it has become so maligned and ridiculed as weakness or indecision. Only those who are perfect have no need of the concession, and they are not found in the halls of government.
My views on the War on Terror and the war in Iraq are complicated, and I'll try and cover them in a future post. Suffice it to say that I follow both with interest, as whatever one may feel about the need to have waged such conflicts, it should be manifestly obvious that we are left with no choice but to win. They are the struggle of our time, whether or not they should have been.
There is a third challenge that is inseperably linked to the other two, especially the War on Terror. It is a fight to retain the values for which we believe place us in the position to act in the first place. We cannot secure liberty for the Iraqis if we lose it here in America. For that reason, I generally oppose the way the Bush administration has handled the civil rights of various detainees. My critism is not limited to US citizens, as nothing in the Constitution seems to limit its application along such lines. Conservatives, "stict constructionalists" to a man, seem to forget that Constitutional rights are not grants from the government, but restrictions upon it. The government does not give us the right to a speedy and public trial, we refuse to grant the government the power to hold otherwise.
Even so, I do recognize that the Constitution is not the totality of US law, and additionally, there are substantial policy reasons for treating non-citizens differently. That does not mean they deserve no rights at all, and it does not justify violating our highest principles. When it comes to US citizens, I think the situation is even more clear cut. To swoop someone up in an airport, an American on American soil, to hold this person without charge, without legal advice, without the presumption of innocence and the security of a public trial is an inexcusable breach of our most basic rights. This is not about what is done to one person, as there is a limit to the importance of a single man. Rather, it is an affront to our laws, our principles, and our rights as free men and women.
Winston Churchill once said: "The power of the executive to cast a man in prison without formulating any charge known to the law and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government, whether Nazi or Communist." Justice and secrecy are mutually exclusive, and wherever one is supreme the other must surely fall into abeyence. That both are needed is undeniable, but this inbalance is nothing new. Sixty years ago we faced this dilemma and failed ourselves, allowing our fellow citizens to become prisoners in their own country.
The challenge of today is even more critical because those who face oppression are far more vulnerable. Today we have progressed far enough as a nation that a move along racial or religious lines, like that of the Japanese-American internment, would be politically untenable. However, this leaves the individual as the target of the government's power. One by one people will be selected, sometimes correctly and sometimes erroneously, but when held in secrecy, beyond the reach of the courts and in controvention of the Constitution, always illegally. These people, insignificant in themselves, will not summon the same support as a race, and so the transgression may simply pass unchallenged. The result is a principle incompatible with our system of government, and it is for that reason the confinement of Americans, held without charge, must be challenged.
Jose Padilla may well be guilty. In which case, he deserves to suffer under the most severe punishments our laws and our conscious may freely assign. But in our system, punishment can proceed only after a speedy and public trial, before a jury of his peers, and with a presumption of innocence. To turn from this responsibility, from the plight of a fellow citizen and that of our Republic, is a failure of epic, and individual, tragedy.