When we read George Packer’s New Yorker item on the trial of Saddam Hussein the other day, we felt a rare bit of pride that our government was showing the people of Iraq a better way. Yes, the trial is coming too soon, with too much American involvement and with deadly consequences for some of the participants. But as even Packer notes, the trial carries with it at least the appearance of justice. Saddam Hussein is alive and well and standing trial. He is not, as some of his predecessors ended up, “a bullet-riddled corpse propped up before television cameras” or “a collection of body parts dragged through the streets of Baghdad.”
We’re better than that. And the America we remember — the America that a lot of us “carry in our hearts” on Veterans Day and every day — would use the war on terror, however flawed in conception and execution, as a way to lead by our own example. We are not a country that abuses those we detain. We are not a country that runs secret prisons, that holds people without charges, that denies them the right and the hope of a hearing before an impartial judge.
And yet, we are. We don’t presume to know what generations of veterans thought as they marched off to war. But we doubt many of them thought they were fighting and dying so that a future vice president could devote his time and energies to advocating for the right to mistreat detainees; so that a future administration could run a network of secret prisons in undisclosed locations around the world; so that members of the United States Senate would be free to adopt legislation that would close U.S courts to those held in U.S. facilities.
The last of these may be the worst. With nine of its members absent, the U.S. Senate voted yesterday to deny the right of habeas corpus to detainees the U.S. is holding around the world. The amendment, proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, would reverse a 2004 Supreme Court decision and stop, mid-course, cases now pending before the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Detainees held by the Bush administration would be left with only those rights that the Bush administration, in its sole discretion, decided to confer upon them. As the Senate rushed through a hurried-for-no-reason debate yesterday on his proposal yesterday, Graham kept complaining about how all the lawyers are mucking up the process. It might be a fine argument if we were talking here about lawsuits over the coffee at McDonald’s or the paint job on a BMW. But the subject here is whether we want our courts even to hear the claims of those we have taken into custody.
The subject here is us.
Forty-nine U.S. senators said yesterday that it is time to close our courts and turn our backs. Five of those senators — Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad and Ron Wyden — are Democrats. As they lay wreaths or attend services or give speeches or do whatever they’re going to do today, we wonder what country they’re carrying in their hearts.