Columns / Discourse / February 1, 2012

Voice of Reason: The civil rights that matter

Recently, file-sharing site and den of piracy Megaupload was shut down, provoking widespread outrage among some of the more Internet-loving among us that our civil rights were being violated because the Feds would dare shut down a website that had been named one of the top three sources of pirated material available on the internet.

About a month ago, in an event that, by contrast, the Internet greeted with an astounding yawn, Congress passed The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012, a massive piece of legislation that clocks in at over 500 pages and authorizes the spending of over $600 billion along with all sorts of minor defense-related provisions.

While our Founding Fathers likely would not have considered the ability to torrent “True Blood” a right deserving of enshrining in the Constitution, something they did find worthy of that was the right of Americans to fair and speedy trials, a right that they have declared optional now in some cases.

In sections 1031 and 1032, right after the section granting the Navy authority to buy two new ferries, there is a provision that authorizes the President of the United States to indefinitely hold American citizens suspected of aiding terrorists until the end of the War on Terror, which, as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman pointed out in a piece about the new rules, is currently scheduled to end on the Wednesday after never, meaning that suspects can be held indefinitely without ever having to go in front of a judge or be charged with a crime.

President Obama, faced with the option of heroically standing up for the Bill of Rights and vetoing the bill, instead signed it, with the promise that his administration would never imprison American citizens without trial.

Even granting to him that he’s telling the truth on this, which given his record on civil liberties I’m not inclined to do (remember how he promised the closure of Guantanamo Bay?), we all should realize that this country is less than a year away from a possible Romney or Gingrich administration that has made no such promises.

It is worth quoting Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a vocal proponent of the new law, on the matter from the Senate debate over the bill:

“And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them: ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer. You are an enemy combatant, and we are going to talk to you about why you joined Al Qaeda.’ ”

Good thing that no innocent person is ever arrested in this country, or this law would mean that law-abiding American citizens could now face years in detention without going before a judge on the whim of the President.

The bill’s defenders point out that the bill only makes it an option to hold American citizens without a lawyer, not an obligation. How tremendously reassuring. Why not give the President the power to ban newspapers or religious groups while we’re at it, as long as he pinky promises not to actually do it?

But surely this can be justified because the national security apparatus needs to be able to go Jack Bauer-style to save America from imminent threats though, right?

No, actually. The Secretary of Defense and the directors of the CIA, FBI and National Intelligence all opposed the bill. Given the track record of some of these organizations in respecting the rights of Americans, if even they are all concerned about the NDAA, perhaps the American public should be as well.

James Madison once famously said that if men were angels, there would be no need for government. That advice cuts the other way too. If the government were run by angels, it wouldn’t matter what they were given the power to do, but since our politicians are less than celestial, the people need to keep an eye on what they’re up to, especially when it’s more serious than impairing the people’s right to download last night’s episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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