• We Are All Potentially Enemy Combatants

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    “There
    ought to be limits to freedom.”
    ~ George W. Bush

    The fabric
    of our nation is unraveling, and our freedoms are hanging by a thread.

    In a world
    where the president has the power to label anyone, whether a citizen
    or permanent resident, an enemy combatant and detain that person
    indefinitely without trial, no liberty exists and everyone is potentially
    an “enemy combatant.”

    According to
    the Bush Administration, Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri is such a person.

    This legal
    alien, residing in Peoria, Ill., with his wife and children, was
    attending college when he was swept up by government agents. He
    was held in a military prison for four years without ever being
    charged with a crime. And for the first 16 months of his imprisonment,
    this man’s family was not even allowed to see him, speak to
    him or reassure themselves that he was alive and well.

    Because Al-Marri
    is not a U.S. citizen, the government denied him basic constitutional
    protections such as the right to hear the charges against him, consult
    an attorney and appear before a judge to determine if, in fact,
    he is guilty of anything. To some people, this is as it should be.
    But that’s not the way things are supposed to work here in
    America. Even the worst criminals in American history, from flesh-eating
    Jeffrey Dahmer to terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh, were afforded
    an attorney and a trial.

    This issue
    is bigger than Al-Marri. It’s even bigger than the Bush Administration
    and its so-called war on terror. The groundwork is being laid for
    a new kind of government where it will no longer matter if you’re
    innocent or guilty, whether you’re a threat to the nation or
    even if you’re a citizen. What will matter is what the president – or
    whoever happens to be occupying the Oval Office at the time – thinks.
    And if he or she thinks you’re a threat to the nation and should
    be locked up, then you’ll be locked up with no access to the
    protections our Constitution provides. In effect, you will disappear.

    Pandora’s
    Box has been opened for presidents to become imperial presidents,
    which should terrify anyone with any sense of history. Sadly, few
    Americans are up in arms over the ramifications, let alone concerned
    that it might impact them in any way. “I’m a law-abiding
    citizen,” one man recently remarked. “I have nothing to
    worry about.”

    That statement
    might have been true once upon a time, when a person was innocent
    until proven guilty and the judicial system could be relied upon
    to hear facts and ascertain truth. But such is no longer the case.
    We are now operating under a system of government where anything
    goes and everyone is suspect.

    A recent ruling
    from a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
    seems to have provided a temporary reprieve from the fear that our
    constitutional republic is floundering. In a 2-1 decision, the court
    ruled that American citizens and legal aliens like Al-Marri must
    be afforded basic constitutional rights such as access to an attorney
    and a court and the right to not be imprisoned unless charged with
    a crime.

    Even so, the
    courts will not be our savior on this one. The ruling will likely
    be overturned by the full Fourth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court
    will probably uphold the reversal. So what do we do in light of
    that?

    First, we must
    recognize that, at a minimum, the accused has the right to present
    his side to a judge and jury. We must remember that our Constitution
    protects “persons,” not just citizens. Indeed, the Fifth
    Amendment guarantees that “no person” will be “deprived
    of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
    The Sixth Amendment secures our right to a speedy and public trial
    by an impartial jury, to be informed of the charges brought against
    us and access to a lawyer. Together, they ensure that the government
    cannot take our freedoms away unless they charge us with a crime,
    place us before a judge and jury and give us a fair opportunity
    to confront the witnesses and evidence presented against us.

    Second, we
    must remember that America’s reputation as a defender of the
    rule of law is worth preserving. At one time, the Statue of Liberty
    symbolized our commitment to fairness and liberty. Today, our military
    commissions and secret military detention camps represent America’s
    hypocrisy.

    Finally, the
    Bill of Rights ensures that no public official can by fiat declare
    us outside the boundaries of the Constitution. We must always be
    leery of government reactions to emergencies and crises because
    the government’s natural response is to rein in liberty for
    safety. But as Benjamin Franklin once insisted, “Those who
    would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary
    Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    In
    the end, it always goes back to “we the people.” It’s
    up to each of us to decide what America should stand for and what
    is worth fighting for. It’s up to us to elect public officials
    who understand and revere the Constitution. And it’s up to
    us to set the standard of fairness that should be the basis of all
    we do.

    Click
    here
    for the audio version of this commentary read by
    John Whitehead.

    June
    21, 2007

    Constitutional
    attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
    him mail
    ] is founder and president of The
    Rutherford Institute
    .

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