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Bush's Police State Kicks Into Gear

The treatment of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla is turning into a Kafkaesque spectacle that should make all Americans nervous.
 
 
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The jackbooted thugs can arrest you without bothering to accuse you of a crime. They can deprive you of the right to make a phone call, to receive a visit from your family, or even to see a lawyer.

It doesn't matter if you're innocent or not; our state-sanctioned terrorists can keep you locked up in prison for the rest of your life without ever granting you your day in court. But you're an American citizen, you protest. It makes no difference whatsoever -- you have no rights.

After cynically using the Sept. 11 attacks as a pretext to eradicate one civil liberty after another, the Bush Administration has finally taken away the single most essential freedom of an American citizen: the right to due process before a jury of his peers. Classifying 31-year-old Chicagoan Jose Padilla as an al-Qaeda associate and enemy combatant, Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized his transfer from a federal courthouse in New York City -- where he had been held as a "material witness" on a customs violation since May 8 -- to indefinite military detention at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina.

Though not legally charged, Padilla (who changed his name to Abdullah al-Mujahir after converting to Islam) is accused of planning to build and detonate a non-nuclear "dirty" radioactive bomb, possibly in Washington, D.C. Government officials concede that they have no physical evidence against Padilla (bomb components, manuals, etc.). Their case, they admit, relies primarily on information from star canary Abu Zubaydah, an unsavory al-Qaeda operative whose Guantánamo debriefing sparked last month's flurry of warnings from Tom Ridge. Justice Department officials, an anonymous official told the New York Times on June 12, "concluded that they could not bring a winnable court prosecution, largely because the evidence against [Padilla] was derived from intelligence sources and other witnesses the government cannot or will not produce in court."

So much for the right to face your accuser.

Padilla theoretically faces prosecution under a military tribunal. (Back in November, Bush had promised that tribunals would only be used against foreigners.) But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that even such kangaroo court justice is probably a long way off: "We're not interested in trying him at this moment."

Some officials say that detainees like Padilla and those being held in the Guantánamo dog pens need not be tried until the end of the "war on terror," which, according to Bush himself, could go on forever.

America may well be a safer place because Jose Padilla has "disappeared," to use the lexicon of Latin American death squads. But the manner in which this American has been stripped of his citizenship rights -- to a lawyer, to a speedy trial, to apply for bail -- is reminiscent of such totalitarian states as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What the Bushies are doing to Padilla is an outrage and it could happen to any of us.

The legal basis for this action is a twisted joke. "Citizens who associate themselves with the military arm of the enemy government, and with its aid, guidance and direction enter this country bent on hostile acts, are enemy belligerents," ruled the Supreme Court in a precedent-setting case in 1942.

The United States, however, is not at war. Congress has not declared war against the Taliban or anyone else. And while Padilla may indeed have plotted hostile acts at the behest of al-Qaeda, no one accuses him of belonging to the Taliban army. How could they? The Bushies denied P.O.W. status under the Geneva conventions to Guantánamo inmates by arguing that the Taliban never had an army.

The war on terror, like the war on drugs, isn't a state of combat. It's an advertising slogan. The bombing campaign against Afghanistan is, at most, a police action. And while there are undoubtedly organizations like al-Qaeda that hate the U.S. and mean harm to Americans, there is no legal basis for denaturalizing Americans merely because they're accused of belonging to such groups.

Ironically, this vile assault on essential American rights comes on the heels of what seems to be a previous Bush Administration abuse of Padilla's rights -- he was jailed in New York for a month without being charged with a crime. Ruling in a different case, New York federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently wrote that "Relying on the material witness statute to detain people who are presumed innocent under our Constitution in order to prevent potential crimes is an illegitimate use of the statute." That ruling may have inspired Padilla's transfer to the South Carolina military lock-up.

You're probably not all that troubled about what happens to Padilla. You haven't hung out with Islamic extremists, boned up on your bomb-making skills or fantasized about Chernobylizing the Washington Mall. But don't forget: A court of law hasn't proved that Jose Padilla did either. And if George W. Bush has his way, it never will.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," is out now. For info visit nbmpub.com.