Sunday, March 21, 2010

LTG 03/21/10 - The Imperial President

Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have introduced the Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010 before the United States Senate. The proposal is shocking in it’s sweep. If passed into law, the bill would literally give the President the authority to detain anyone he wishes, American citizen or not, for as long as he wants.

I’m not kidding. I’m not exaggerating. This isn’t the opening chapter of “It Can’t Happen Here” or any other dystopic fictional work. Here’s how it would work.

According to the bill, if someone who was taken into military custody and suspected of being an “unprivileged enemy belligerent,” the bill would give the President authority to detain that person in military custody without trial or criminal charges “for the duration of hostilities against the United States.”

And you thought the Bush-era euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” for “torture” were gone. Silly you.

But what do all those euphemisms mean? Well, an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” is someone who the President determines to be a member of a group hostile to the United States. If that sounds similar to the Bush-era “enemy combatant” designation, that’s because it means the exact same thing.

How about the “duration of hostilities” thing? That means when the President declares the “war on terror” to be over. And if you think the answer to that question is “never,” just like a war on crime or poverty or bad taste in music, you’re exactly right. It’s the primary problem for treating a metaphorical war on a concept the same as a real, legal war on something tangible like a country. By telling a populace they are in a war, even a perpetual war, a government gets to enhance its’ power and repress its’ citizenry for the duration of the perpetual war. George Orwell told us that in “1984.”

Did you notice a common theme running through the description of the bill? It’s the President that gets to make all of these decisions. The bill is actually just putting into law the “Unitary Executive” theory made popular by the neoconservative movement that brought us the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay. That theory states that the President has unfettered authority during times of war as commander in chief of the military. A perpetual war, of course, means a perpetual granting to the President of unfettered authority. And that is pretty hard to distinguish from a military dictatorship.

Surely, though, such a law would be unconstitutional, right? Well, on its’ face you would think so. But the Bush administration did a pretty good job of taking this country down a constitutional rabbit hole with its’ fearmongering of 9/11, getting at least six unconstitutional ideas into the mainstream of American thought before breakfast. And with the Conservative Four on the Supreme Court, there’s no reason to be optimistic about this bill being struck down if it became law.

For example, remember Jose Padilla? He was the guy accused of trying to set off a “dirty bomb” in 2002, and held indefinitely as an “enemy combatant” by President Bush. Eventually even the Bush administration was forced to try him in Federal court, where he was sentenced in 2007 (by the way, not for anything involving a “dirty bomb”) to 17 years in prison. He remains there to this day, which is amazing to know considering how we’ve heard from the Republicans how terrorists are all supervillains whose mighty powers couldn’t possibly be held by a SuperMax prison.

I guess I understand why McCain would sponsor such legislation. He’s in a huge primary fight against a conservative talk show host, and thinks he needs to look tough to get the hard-right conservative votes. Lieberman is more of a mystery to me, and I cannot fathom how a Jewish man who knows his history could ever give the kind of authority to anyone that his bill would grant the President.

What surprises me a little is why the Tea Party kooks haven’t picked up on this. Remember, these are the folks who think that President Obama is a socialist. And a communist. And a Marxist. And a dictator. And a Klingon, I think. Regardless, they think he’s a Bad Dude who is trying to “steal our freedoms” and “take our country away” and stuff like that.

Well, guess what? If this bill passes, Obama would have the legal authority to do just that. He could declare all the Tea Partiers as “unprivileged enemy belligerents” and have them arrested and held in military detention for as long as he wants. It wouldn’t matter that the Tea Partiers have no connection whatsoever to international terrorism. The President and the President alone could make that decision, with no access to the courts or any other independent tribunal for review. After all, Padilla didn’t have anything to do with what he was accused of, but he would have been held indefinitely anyway.

Perhaps if the Tea Partiers spent less time worrying about death panels and more time worrying about military tribunals, they’d be a more productive force in society. But I’m not holding my breath.

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