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US is Brutalizing Principles of Justice

15 November 2001

First, the Justice Department rounds up more than a thousand people and holds them without letting anybody know the charges against them, or even who is being held. Then the State Department announces that it will slow the process for granting visas to men from Arab and Muslim countries.

But don't stop there. Why not violate the long-held principle that people in custody are entitled to private conversations with their attorneys?

And while we're at it, why not just ignore the American criminal justice system for some people and let their cases be handled in secret, by military courts?

What next? Summary executions? If people, at the sole direction of the president, are tried in secret by military courts, you might as well forget the niceties and go directly to the firing squad.

With so much going on these days -- the crash of an airliner in New York City, the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, a major new nuclear weapons agreement with Russia, and a sagging economy -- it's easy to see why the draconian measures to shortchange cherished principles of American justice aren't getting the attention they deserve.

Even were those non-terrorist events not happening, many Americans would be predisposed to grant the administration whatever it wants in the quest to track down Osama bin Laden and his network of terrorists. These are perilous times that do require extraordinary measures.

But the administration has gone too far, too fast. The president's order this week gives him the authority to order a non-citizen to undergo a trial in a military court, so long as the president has ``reason to believe'' the individual is a member of the Al-Qaida terrorist organization or has assisted Al-Qaida in its terrorist ends. Further, the order says individuals so tried have no remedy for appealing either the trial or the outcome of it. The president and his advisers argue that this is merely an extension of the battlefield in time of war, and that on the battlefield criminal rules don't apply.

There are, however, other alternatives. As the hunt for Osama bin Laden continues, the trial of another rogue responsible for horrible atrocities against humans is taking place at the Hague under the auspices of an international court. Surely, bin Laden if found, could be handled in a similar manner.

The president has the constitutional authority to do what he's doing. He nonetheless undermines the values America seeks to defend as it battles those for whom civil rights have no meaning.

Published in the San Jose Mercury News.
2001 The Mercury News.

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