The evil of indefinite detention and those wanting to de-prioritize it

What is behind the demand from some Democrats that this issue be de-prioritized?

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(updated below – Update II – Update III [Mon.])

This Wednesday will mark the ten-year anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo prison camp. In The New York Times, one of the camp’s former prisoners, Lakhdar Boumediene, has an incredibly powerful Op-Ed recounting the gross injustice of his due-process-free detention, which lasted seven years. It was clear from the start that the accusations against this Bosnian citizen — who at the time of the 9/11 attack was the Red Crescent Society’s director of humanitarian aid for Bosnian children — were false; indeed, a high court in Bosnia investigated and cleared him of American charges of Terrorism. But U.S. forces nonetheless abducted him, tied him up, shipped him to Guantanamo, and kept him there for seven years with no trial.

In September, 2006, the U.S. Congress passed the Military Commissions Act (MCA) which, among other things, not only authorized the detention of accused Terrorist suspects without a trial, but even explicitly denied all Guantanamo detainees the right of habeas corpus: the Constitutionally mandated procedure to allow prisoners at least one opportunity to convince a court that they are being wrongfully held. Habeas hearings are a much lower form of protection than a full trial: the government need not convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty, but rather merely present some credible evidence to justify the imprisonment. But the MCA denied even habeas rights to detainees.

Only once the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2008 decision bearing Boumediene’s name, ruled that this habeas-denying provision of the MCA was unconstitutional, and that Guantanamo detainees were entitled to habeas corpus review, was the U.S. government finally required to show its evidence against Boumediene in an actual court. A Bush-43 appointed federal judge then ruled that there was no credible evidence to support the accusations against him, and he was finally released in May, 2009. Please first go read Boumediene’s short though gripping account of what this indefinite detention did to his life, and then consider the following points:



(1) Since the Supreme Court’s Boumediene decision, dozens of Guantanamo detainees like Boumediene were finally able to have a federal court review whether there was any credible evidence against them, and the vast majority have won their cases on the ground that there was no such evidence (at one point, 75% of Guantanamo detainees prevailed, though the percentage is now somewhat lower). Had the Military Commissions Act been upheld as constitutional, Boumediene — and dozens of other innocent, now-released Guantanamo detainees — would undoubtedly still be indefinitely imprisoned.

Put another way, if those who voted for the MCA had their way — and that includes all GOP Senators except Lincoln Chafee along with 12 Democrats, including Jay Rockefeller, Debbie Stabenow, Robert Menendez, Frank Lautenberg, and current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — then Boumediene and dozens of other innocent detainees would still be wrongly imprisoned. Moreover, the Democrats had 46 Senators at the time and could have filibustered but did not; indeed, even many Democrats who voted against the bill anointed John McCain as their negotiator and were prepared to vote for the MCA until the very last weekend when some unrelated changes were made without their input and they were offended on that procedural ground. As Boumediene’s Op-Ed reflects, acting to empower the President to imprison people indefinitely with no charges is one of the most pernicious and dangerous steps a government can take, and yet the U.S. Congress in 2006 did exactly that.

(2) The Boumediene Supreme Court decision was a 5-4 vote; thus, four Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court voted to uphold the constitutionality of imprisoning human beings indefinitely, possibly for life, without even the minimal protections of a habeas hearing. Had Anthony Kennedy voted with his conservative colleagues, not only would Boumediene and dozens of others still be wrongly imprisoned, but the power which the U.S. has long taught its citizens is the defining hallmark of tyranny — the power to imprison without due process — would have been fully enshrined under American law.

(3) Post-Boumediene, indefinite detention remains a staple of Obama policy. The Obama DOJ has repeatedly argued that the Boumediene ruling should not apply to Bagram, where — the Obama administration insists — it has the power to imprison people with no due process, not even a habeas hearing; the Obama DOJ has succeeded in having that power enshrined. Obama has proposed a law to vest him with powers of “prolonged detention” to allow Terrorist suspects to be imprisoned with no trials. His plan for closing Guantanamo entailed the mere re-location of its indefinite detention system to U.S. soil, where dozens of detainees, at least, would continue to be imprisoned with no trial. And, of course, the President just signed into law the NDAA which contains — as the ACLU put it — “a sweeping worldwide indefinite detention provision,” meaning — as Human Rights Watch put it — that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.” Those held at Guantanamo will continue to receive at least a habeas hearing, but those held in other American War on Terror prisons will not. Read Boumediene’s Op-Ed to see why this is so odious.

(4) As we head into Election Year, there is an increasingly common, bizarre and self-evidently repellent tactic being employed by some Democratic partisans against those of us who insist that issues like indefinite detention (along with ongoing killing of civilians in the Muslim world) merit high priority. The argument is that to place emphasis on such issues is to harm President Obama (because he’s responsible for indefinite detention, substantial civilian deaths, and war-risking aggression) while helping competing candidates (such as Gary Johnson or Ron Paul) who vehemently oppose such policies. Thus, so goes this reasoning, to demand that issues like indefinite detention and civilian deaths be prioritized in assessing the presidential race is to subordinate the importance of other issues such as abortion, gay equality, and domestic civil rights enforcement on which Obama and the Democrats are better. Many of these commentators strongly imply, or now even outright state, that only white males are willing to argue for such a prioritization scheme because the de-prioritized issues do not affect them. See here (Megan Carpentier), here (Katha Pollitt) and here (Dylan Matthews) as three of many examples of this grotesque accusatory innuendo.

There are numerous glaring flaws with this divisive tactic. For one, it relies on a full-scale, deliberate distortion of the argument being made; demanding that issues like indefinite detention, civilian deaths and aggressive war be given high priority in the presidential race does not remotely advocate the de-prioritization of any other issues. For another, many women and ethnic and racial minorities – as well as gay Americans — are making similar arguments about the need for these issues to receive substantial attention in the election.

More important, it’s irrational in the extreme to argue that self-interest or “privilege” would cause someone to want to prioritize issues like indefinite detention and civilian causalities given that the civil liberties and anti-war advocates being so accused are extremely unlikely themselves to be affected by the abuses they protest. For the most part, it isn’t white males being indefinitely detained, rendered, and having their houses and cars exploded with drones — the victims of those policies are people like Boumediene, or Gulet Mohamed, or Jose Padilla, or Awal Gul, or Sami al-Haj, or Binyam Mohamed, or Afghan villagers, or Pakistani families, or Yemeni teenagers.

Put another way, when you spend the vast bulk of your time working against the injustices imposed almost exclusively on minorities and the marginalized — as anyone who works on these war and civil liberties issues by definition does — it’s reprehensible for someone to deploy these sorts of accusatory tactics, all in service of the shallow goal of partisan loyalty enforcement. Those who were actually driven primarily by privileged self-interest would want to de-prioritize these issues in a presidential campaign, not insist on their vital importance.

And that is this real point here: what’s so warped about those who employ this tactic for partisan ends is how easily it could be used against them, rather than by them. All of the authors of the three accusatory examples linked above (Carpentier, Pollitt, and Matthews) — as well as most of those Democrats who have now sunk to explicitly arguing that such matters are unimportant — are white and non-Muslim. To apply their degraded rhetoric to them, one could easily say:

Of course they don’t consider indefinite detention, invasions and occupations, and civilian slaughter to be disqualifying in a President or even meriting substantial attention in the presidential election — of course they will demand that everyone faithfully support a President who continues to do these things aggressively — because, as non-Muslims, they’re not the ones who will be imprisoned for years with no trial or have their children blown to bits by a U.S. drone or air strike, so what do they care?

I don’t employ or endorse that wretched reasoning, but those who do — such as the authors of the above-linked accusations — should have it applied to them and their own political priorities; they deserve to reap what they are sowing.

Indeed, The Washington Post today has an excellent article on the millions of civilian deaths which the U.S. has caused over the last several decades and how steadfastly those civilian deaths are ignored in U.S. political and media discourse. The article is by John Tirman, the executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies who just released a book on that topic. One primary reason that these deaths receive such low priority is because Americans are unaffected by these casaulties and can thus easily de-prioritize them as aberrational:

This explains much of our response to the violence in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. When the wars went badly and violence escalated, Americans tended to ignore or even blame the victims. The public dismissed the civilians because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world.

These attitudes have consequences. Perhaps the most important one — apart from the tensions created with the host governments, which have been quite vocal in protesting civilian casualties — is that indifference provides permission to our military and political leaders to pursue more interventions.

To invoke the exploitative, accusatory tactics of Megan Carpentier, Katha Pollitt, Dylan Matthews and the other accusers linked above: it’s much easier to view these policies as non-disqualifying and to insist on their de-prioritization in favor of other policies because their white, non-Muslim privilege means that they aren’t the ones who are going to be indefinitely detained, assassinated without due process, or have their homes and children targeted with drones and cluster bombs. Muslims have a much harder time so blithely acquiescing to such abuses — as do non-Muslims who are capable of protesting grave injustices even when they’re not directly affected by them. Again, that is not a form of reasoning I accept or use — there may be all sorts of reasons why one would want these policies to be de-prioritized or at least not be seen as disqualifying beyond selfish, privilege-based indifference — but those who spew those kinds of smears should understand how easy it is to subject them to those accusations.

Ultimately, it really isn’t that complicated to understand why many people consider these issues to be so imperative. Those struggling to understand it should go read Lakhdar Boumediene’s Op-Ed. Or this story and this Op-Ed about a 16-year-old boy and his 12-year-old cousin whose lives were ended when the 16-year-old was targeted (in secret and with no checks) with a drone strike in Pakistan. Or these newly documented findings of ongoing abuse of detainees at Bagram. Or the dozens of Yemeni women and children killed by a U.S. cluster bomb. Or the secretive process by which the current President has seized the unilateral power to target even U.S. citizens for assassination.

There are many reasons why one might insist on attention being paid to these issues, even in an Election Year. As I explained in my response to Carpentier’s lowly Guardian attack, self-interest and “privilege” are not among them. If anything, those traits are likely to produce exactly the opposite reaction, i.e., that these issues not be prioritized because empowering one’s own political party and caring about issues that personally harm oneself is the overriding goal.

 

UPDATE: The NYT has published an Op-Ed from another released, innocent Guatanamo detainee, Murat Kurnaz, that is just as harrowing and moving. It isn’t the people who are demanding these injustices receive high priority who have to answer charges of race-and-privilege-based self-interest and indifference; if anyone should answer those scurrilous charges, it’s those insisting that these abuses are not disqualifying and can and should be de-prioritized in the 2012 election.

 

UPDATE II: NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen wrote this on Twitter earlier this afternoon regarding Carpentier’s falsehood-based attack piece in The Guardian:

Carpentier’s purported summary of what I wrote is so blatantly false — indeed, is the exact opposite of what I argued — that I had strongly considered demanding a retraction from The Guardian, only to decide that that level of drama wasn’t worth the time and energy required, and instead asked only that an Editor’s Note be added to her Op-Ed linking to my response (which they then added). As I said the very first time I wrote about these arguments, I was doing so “even knowing in advance how wildly they will be distorted”; I also knew who would do the distorting and why. I nonetheless proceeded to make the arguments because I believed they were sufficiently important and “it’s always inadvisable to refrain from expressing ideas in deference to the confusion and deceit of the lowest elements.” In particular, I knew that in an Election Year, any attempt to locate important advocacy outside of The Party would prompt all sorts of dishonest and slimy smears — and they have — but I genuinely believe these issues are too important to permit those sorts of tactics to deter constructive efforts to do something about them. The two Op-Eds from the former Guantanamo detainees underscore why I believe that.

 

UPDATE III [Mon.]: Here are three worthwhile posts relating to all of this: (1) from David Mizner on the sudden effort by some progressives to insist on the relative unimportance of war and certain civil liberties issues — and the irrational claim that they can and should be separated from domestic policy matters — given how bad their party and their candidate is on those issues; (2) from Bob Somerby on the potent role which tribalism plays in driving this debate; and (3) from Jayel Aheram on specifically what causes the types of obvious distortions seen from Carpentier.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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