Last Thursday was the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Bill of Rights. Congress, apparently feeling that 220 years was a nice round number, decided that this would be the perfect time to repudiate most of the basic principles that document embodies. This rather impressive feat was achieved through the National Defense Authorization Act, of which you can get a full and thorough explanation here. Now, I’m all for authorizing national defense. Really, I am. I think defending the nation is swell. It’s just that Congress and the president, who signed the bill Friday, have a slightly different idea than I do of how to go about it.
The government thinks that the best way to defend our country is to legalize indefinite detention for suspected al-Qaeda members and their allies. And I think having the military imprison people indefinitely without charge is a bad idea. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says not to worry. This bill doesn’t authorize holding American citizens indefinitely. First of all, that’s not clear at all (here‘s an analysis of the legal quagmire). And secondly, I’m not sure that I should take comfort in the fact that only foreigners are being held without a show of just cause.
Keep in mind too that the government can do so on the suspicion that someone is an ally of al-Qaeda. Those are two very broad words that conjure up all sorts of worrying scenarios (if you don’t believe me, look at how we define “material support” to terrorist groups). As for giving the military full control over detention and trial of suspects, proponents of the bill point to a provision allowing the president to move individuals to the federal system at his discretion. So fear not, my friends. If you are suspected of aiding terrorism, you will only be tried in secret with a lower burden of evidence if our great and magnanimous leader feels it is appropriate. And since President Obama has shown so much political courage on issues like this so far (this, this, this, and this come to mind), I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.
America is an idea. It is not based on the traditions of a particular group or many centuries of history in a particular place. It is based on the idea that liberty and equality are owed to all. Undoubtedly, we now face many threats. But that does not mean America can afford to abandon its principles. Indeed, if we abandon them at our convenience, then they are not really principles at all.
Photo credit: Flickr user catheroo (catedens)
This week: The extension of the battlefield to American soil got you down? Or maybe it was just my melodramatic moralizing? Either way, I want to make it up to you. In the spirit of the season, here‘s a gift from me to you. Why, yes, it is a Hanukkah song written by ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee Orrin Hatch. And yes, that is the senior senator from Utah singing along at 1:38. See? It’s not all bad! Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/[December event of your choice].