Poor Abe Lincoln, who bore the heaviest burden in the nation’s history, stopping its certain dissolution, now is being asked to share the burden of George W. Bush’s disastrous wars and their depredations on humankind.
Whenever the Bush administration is caught flouting the Constitution, acts of Congress, treaties, international law or plain human decency, the Great Emancipator is figuratively disinterred and made to stand for Bush’s wrongs. Lincoln did it first, you see, and it enabled him to preserve the union. Bush is engaged in the same honorable and equally desperate enterprise and so deserves the same understanding and reverence.
First was the secret and permanent detention of Muslims captured in Afghanistan, including hundreds who turned out to have done nothing hostile to the United States, and then administration guidelines that changed the rules and permitted the torture of detainees as well as legitimate prisoners of war. The administration said the detainees were outside the protections of the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution. These were especially parlous times, with dangers like Lincoln faced, and had to be confronted by extraordinary remedies.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush said the detainees at the Guantanamo Naval Base were on U.S. soil and deserved access to American courts. American law firms then filed habeas corpus cases for some 300 Guantanamo prisoners who had no terrorist ties, including several from a peaceful sect rounded up by bounty hunters and sold to the Army. The government won’t release the proven innocents because it would set a precedent it might have to follow with others. The government still insists that the war on terror exempts it from the conventions on detention of prisoners, torture and human rights, and, since the prisoners are not technically on U.S. soil, from the Constitution’s guarantee of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus, the right to a hearing in court to plead for freedom, is the fundamental legal birthright under the Constitution. The British Parliament had battled to stop the royal torture writs from the Court of Star Chamber, so the American drafters put habeas corpus high among basic rights in the original Constitution, right up there in Article I. It did not have to wait for the Bill of Rights.
“The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it,” it said.
And Lincoln, as we have so often been reminded, suspended it. He did not shrink from using the tools needed to put down an insurrection that sundered the nation, including the temporary suppression of ordinary human rights. It is supposed to be an example that worthy presidents follow. (See Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial Sunday.)
Abe’s administration dealt harshly with spies, too, like young David O. Dodd of Little Rock, who was hanged for possessing a coded description of union defenses when he went through union lines and is a martyr celebrated annually in the pages of the newspaper.
Lincoln — as well as other war presidents and George Washington — is invoked in defense of President Bush’s orders to spy on U.S. citizens who his national security agency suspects conceivably could have had some contact with al Qaeda or another individual or organization affiliated with terrorist groups. The president authorized agents to eavesdrop on telephone or computer communications without getting the warrants that the Fourth Amendment seems to require. One administration source estimated that 5,000 Americans, maybe many more, had had their communications monitored. The administration will not say if all the eavesdropping turned up terrorist suspects or sympathizers.
Lincoln had mail to and from the Confederacy intercepted and he did not get a warrant, did he?
Bush and the defenders of the curtailment of human rights and the lies in pursuit of war aims would have us believe that the effort to contain al Qaeda ranks with the preservation of the union and that Abe would have abused civil liberties, too, if he were in Bush’s shoes.
But international terrorism holds no threat to the security of the United States. A tiny band of fanatics in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan and their occasional sympathizers are not going to dissolve the United States. Terrorism is a scourge mostly for Muslims, who are far and away its most numerous victims.
Terrorists inflicted great national pain in September 2001 and the specter of their doing so again, as with the deeds of homegrown fanatics like Timothy McVeigh, will remain with us all the days of our lives. But they present no cause to surrender our values. Lincoln in particular, I think, would be saddened to see polls which suggest that fearful Americans are acquiring a taste for torture and an appreciation for sacrificing individual liberty.