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Prisoners of the War on Terror

Post-9/11 detainees are in prison not for what they have done, but for whom they know and what they may do in the future.
 
 
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The United States is a nation of laws.

The police arrest suspects they reasonably believe to have broken the law, not citizens who happen to disagree with the government's politics. Cops don't go after people preemptively because they might commit a crime someday. In America, people are considered innocent until they're proven guilty in a court of law. They enjoy the right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers as quickly as possible. And of course they're entitled to the counsel of an attorney.

These fundamental rights, taught in every civics class, define what it means to be American. When other countries fill their prisons with political dissidents, we wonder aloud what it must be like to live in such lawless places. When we watch films like "Midnight Express,"in which an American drug smuggler rots in a Turkish prison, we shake our heads not at the sentence -- after all, he's guilty -- but at the lead character's railroading through the court system and the abuse he suffers at the hands of his guards.

Before Sept. 11, no patriotic American would have disputed the last two paragraphs. Sadly, legal guarantees that every American considered a sacred birthright have been shredded virtually overnight, and many people don't seem to care. Just as a World Trade Center built over the course of five years was destroyed in under two hours, a presidential impostor has used a phony "war on terror" to systematically unravel two centuries of basic jurisprudence in less than a year.

George W. Bush may not have read Gibbon but he possesses the morals and cunning of a gangster; in a country still stunned by last fall's attacks, that seems to be enough.

The "war on terror," we're told, requires new tactics. Law enforcement -- which somehow now includes the military, CIA, FBI and NSA -- needs stronger tools. Terrorists are sneakier and smarter than your garden-variety mafia don. So now they're no longer "accused terrorists" but rather "enemy combatants." Who cares if these "enemy combatants" are American citizens? They can be held forever, or to be more precise, until the federal government "defeats terrorism." And while they're awaiting that distant day, Bush's "detainees" -- not prisoners, since his first decisive victory has been in his jihad against the English language -- don't get to see a lawyer. This works out well because Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who has anointed himself judge, jury and executioner -- won't offer them a chance to prove their innocence in court.

For the Bushies, see, guilt and innocence aren't the point. The detainees aren't in prison for what they've done. They're there because of what they might do, for whom they know, for what they think. They are political prisoners.

Americans have watched with aggressive disinterest as images of 564 captured Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters squatting in their Guantánamo dog pens fill their living room screens. Human rights activists warn that these inmates, who hail from 38 countries, are being abused. At Camp Delta in July and August, three men tried to hang themselves and another slashed his wrist with a plastic razor. According to the Army, Guantánamo internees have staged hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their captivity. Others are being forcibly medicated with antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs.

Even worse than the day-to-day torture is the interminable legal limbo. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled July 31 that "the military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is outside the sovereign territory of the United States." So Guantánamo isn't the U.S., which means that the prisoners can't seek redress in American courts. But it isn't Cuba either. The POWs can go to the World Court in The Hague, notes Kollar-Kotelly -- but the United States routinely ignores international rulings.

Bush asserts that we're at "war" whenever he calls for increased government surveillance and tax cuts, and decreased freedom and social programs. But then he turns right around and claims that the Guantánamo captives, soldiers captured while bombs fell and bullets flew, aren't "prisoners of war"at all. Being declared a POW, after all, would entitle these schlubs to certain rights under the 1949 Geneva Conventions: freedom to refuse to answer questions, release at the end of hostilities, decent treatment, i.e., not being held in six-by-eight-foot dog pens under the blazing tropical sun. This linguistic chicanery is amusingly convenient, but it will look like madness the next time American soldiers captured overseas apply for POW status.

If you think about it -- and there's been very little serious thinking since September 11 -- what did these guys do to deserve being imprisoned in the first place, much less indefinitely? They fought for the Taliban. In Afghanistan.

Against the Northern Alliance. In Afghanistan. These prisoners -- er, detainees -- didn't attack the United States. They didn't even know anyone who attacked the United States. They're being held not because of who they are, but because of what they might do, and because of what they think.

This is not the American way.

The same goes for the 750 people the Justice Department picked up on visa and immigration charges since September 11. There are millions of illegal immigrants in the United States, but Bush's feds sought out only those whose ethnicity (Arab), ancestry (Muslim) and political beliefs (opposed to U.S. foreign policy) made them targets. These people aren't terrorists, or even accused terrorists -- they're political prisoners, doing time for what they think and what they might do.

Not even Americans are safe from Bush's anti-constitutional assaults on law and basic decency. Remember Jose Padilla? Attorney General John Ashcroft crowed in June that his men had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb." Now government officials admit that they've got zero evidence and that Padilla is at best a "small fish." Nevertheless, they plan to detain this American citizen indefinitely, without trial.

Similarly Yaser Esam Hamdi, the "other"American Talib captured in Afghanistan, has been held in the brig of the Norfolk Naval Station since April 5. On August 16 U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar demanded that the government, which hasn't even bothered to explain why Hamdi should be held as an enemy combatant, must do so. "This case appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to an indefinite detention in the continental United States without charges, without any finding by a military tribunal, and without access to a lawyer," Doumar wrote.

There are few more sickening sights than George W. Bush wearing a lapel pin bearing an image of the American flag. Bush and his creepy henchmen can wrap themselves in nationalistic symbolism all they want, but these right-wing thugs aren't patriots. They may pledge allegiance to the flag, but they despise the republic for which it stands.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back,"is now in its second edition. Ordering and review-copy information are available at nbmpub.com