May 25th, 2009
In a lengthy piece on Huffington Post, David Bromwich dissects President Obama’s disturbing speech this week on national security:
Let us say it: something is seriously wrong in this administration — though we are not yet in a position to judge the cause. We do not know who the lawyers are that gave Barack Obama advice that goes against a long career of ostensible commitments. And it is too early yet to say at what point a new president, confused by the depth of his burdens and uncertain how much he believes any more of what he used to say, becomes instead a man we are compelled to see as lacking in convictions. It cannot be a virtue that he sheds the Constitution with a gentler demeanor than George W. Bush….
A misjudged statesmanship has allowed Obama to think himself magnanimous when he declines to expose the wrongs he has come to know. The way to right a wrong is not to install a somewhat reformed version of the wrong. People, by that means, may be spared embarrassment, but their instinct for truth will be corrupted. It is a false prudence that supposes justice can come from a compromise between a lawful and a lawless regime. On the contrary, the less you tell of the truth, the more prone your listeners will be to commit the next barbarous act that is proposed to them under the cover of a national emergency or a necessary war.
Bromwitch points out the true horror of Obama’s “prolonged detention” proposal, which undoes every principle of justice:
President Obama committed himself, in this speech, to hold in indefinite captivity persons the United States does not charge with specific acts, and whom it does not mean to bring to trial. The only reason for such indefinite detention can be that we do not know who the prisoners are, exactly, and therefore do not know what the charges would be; or that we know we have given the prisoners cause to resent us, after their capture if not before. This points to a darker category: persons whom we cannot bring to trial because all of the evidence against them was obtained under torture. These people either are abused but guilty or, if originally innocent, may reliably be supposed full of hatred toward the people and country that did such things to them.
This last is the fifth of Obama’s five categories: “those who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.” What species of twilight creature is alluded to here? Someone, it seems, whom we know to be certainly dangerous to the American people but about the danger of whom we cannot possibly open evidence at a trial, or even venture to make specific charges.
Insight into this category or prisoners may be gained from William Glaberson’s May 23 article in the New York Times on President Obama’s detention plan.
“Some proponents of an indefinite detention system,” writes Glaberson, “argue that Guantanamo’s remaining 240 detainees include cold-blooded jihadists and perhaps some so warped by their experience in custody that no president would be willing to free them.” Note the words so warped by their experience of custody. So once we have ruined them body and soul, with or without tenable initial grounds of suspicion, we grant ourselves the right to go on harming them forever. Set free, they would wreak too sure a vengeance or stand as too glaring a testimony against us. Note well: it is worse, in some ways, to have been innocent than to have been guilty at Guantanamo. The guilty man can at least stand trial. Regarding the innocent, our own guilt is so complete that to prevent its effects we must keep him in prison indefinitely. Thus we compound our crimes before trying the persons we think we can succeed in convicting as war criminals.
Once we start imprisoning people without trial, the list of potential suspects will become ever longer. Imagine if Johnson’s FBI or Nixon’s Watergate team had had this power. Can we really believe that the government will always restrain itself? Such belief flies in the face of everything we know about human nature and political power. The thousnads upon thousands on the government’s terrorist watch list are all potential subjects of “prolonged detention” for the safety of the state. Can we really assume that some President won’t take that power and use it? For the idea id to imprison forever people who cannot be brought to trial. That is, people against whom there is no reliable evidence that can convict them of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
It is beyond a reasonable doubt that a proposal for “prolonged detention” is a dagger at the heart of freedom.