As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

And Justice For None

Glenn Greenwald has the gory details about yet another civil liberties backtrack for the White House, introducing the new term of "presidential post-acquittal detention power." Basically, if the Administration puts a terror suspect on trial and they are actually found innocent, the President reserves the right to detain them anyway for an indefinite period.

All of this underscores what has clearly emerged as the core "principle" of Obama justice when it comes to accused Terrorists -- namely, "due process" is pure window dressing with only one goal: to ensure that anyone the President wants to keep imprisoned will remain in prison. They'll create various procedures to prettify the process, but the outcome is always the same -- ongoing detention for as long as the President dictates. This is how I described it when Obama first unveiled his proposal of preventive detention:

If you really think about the argument Obama made yesterday -- when he described the five categories of detainees and the procedures to which each will be subjected -- it becomes manifest just how profound a violation of Western conceptions of justice this is. What Obama is saying is this: we'll give real trials only to those detainees we know in advance we will convict. For those we don't think we can convict in a real court, we'll get convictions in the military commissions I'm creating. For those we can't convict even in my military commissions, we'll just imprison them anyway with no charges ("preventively detain" them).

After yesterday, we have to add an even more extreme prong to this policy: if by chance we miscalculate and deign to give a trial to a detainee who is then acquitted, we'll still just keep them in prison anyway by presidential decree. That added step renders my criticism of Obama's conception of "justice" even more applicable:

Giving trials to people only when you know for sure, in advance, that you'll get convictions is not due process. Those are called "show trials." In a healthy system of justice, the Government gives everyone it wants to imprison a trial and then imprisons only those whom it can convict. The process is constant (trials), and the outcome varies (convictions or acquittals). Obama is saying the opposite: in his scheme, it is the outcome that is constant (everyone ends up imprisoned), while the process varies and is determined by the Government (trials for some; military commissions for others; indefinite detention for the rest). The Government picks and chooses which process you get in order to ensure that it always wins. A more warped "system of justice" is hard to imagine.

I get the feeling that if those left at Guantanamo wanted to engage in mass suicide right now, someone in the White House would give the go-ahead to mix the Kool-Aid for them. This is just a problem they don't want to solve.

And of course, the focus on Guantanamo, and the fate of the prisoners there, keeps everyone's eye off of those indefinitely detained at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, without charges, and in greater numbers at this point than in Cuba. Furthermore, what Obama's team has not answered is if they plan to continue these show trials and preventive detention tactics for those they capture, not just the artifacts of the Bush regime. That answer could come soon.

We have, through expansion of executive power, extreme Congressional deference and a failure to counteract the push in the popular culture, allowed the arguments of reactionaries - that any suspect in the so-called "war on terror" must be detained indefinitely until the end of combat in an endless, figurative war - to take hold in the public mind. When these issues made the public debate, when torture became the stuff of online poll topics, when they were allowed legitimacy, we inevitably and inescapably lost that debate. The genie has left the bottle, and while a popular President could put it back in, he has shown absolutely no willingness to expend an ounce of political capital to do so. And we will look back on decisions like this as part of a sad legacy, regardless of the rest of the tenure.

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