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Habeas Corpus: A Defense Against The Dark Arts

by Caroline Arnold

This week our Air Force announced the deployment of "Reaper" - a remotely-controlled cyber-raptor loaded with hellfire and holocaust designed to deliver death and devastation to any target at any distance, for any reason - or for none - on behalf of ... who? what?

This week our Senate is debating the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007, designed to restore habeas corpus rights denied by the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to some 12 million legal residents of the U.S. It will not, we should note, restore the right of habeas corpus to any person accused of being an "enemy combatant, " nor to anyone detained pending determination of their status.

As I read these stories I kept recalling my son Seth's accusation, at age four, that I had buttered his toast on the wrong side. Of course I laughed - how can anyone tell the right from the wrong side of a piece of toast, especially before it's been buttered?

But I also recognized that it represented a child's exploration of the parameters of the world unfolding around him. Kids must constantly test the real world; they need to find out what consequences follow various words or actions, they need to be aware of cultural assumptions on which their lives may depend; they need to learn right and wrong, and who may be trusted and who should be feared; they need to develop some confidence that the society they live in is rational and lawful, and reasonably predictable. And they need to develop some defenses against whatever "dark arts" are abroad in the world they live in.

All of us today have to come to grips with such things, in a world of unimaginable complexity, fiendish technologies, information overload, managed news and a President and Vice President who actively practice dark arts of fear: lies, secrets, spying, illegal detainment, torture, war.

Too many Americans today are deeply insecure in their understanding of fundamental systems that affect their lives. They aren't quite sure where their livers are located, or the names of both their Senators; they don't know whether they should doubt evolution or believe global warming; they're uncertain about who to trust and who to fear; they're not altogether convinced that their society is rational and lawful; they're not quite sure how we should fight terrorism, and they're hazy about habeas corpus.

But they experience real fear when they read about people being detained without knowing the charges against them. They wonder "What if I got arrested, but didn't know what for?" "What if my son was detained and I couldn't find out what he had done or where he was?" Then they wonder further: "How do I know that I won't be next?" "What should I do or not do to make sure someone doesn't accuse me and have me arrested?"

We begin to see that the cancellation of habeas corpus was an artful move to make citizens more insecure, more distrustful of one another, and more fearful.

Equally frightening should be the collective impact of the loss of habeas corpus: "If we-the-people cannot know the charges against detainees, how can we know that those in power are acting within the law and on behalf of the common good, and not to enrich or empower themselves, to settle personal grudges or to impose their religious or ideological beliefs on everyone?"

The present abuses of habeas corpus also divide human beings into those deserving of the basic rights and protections of the law, and those who can be excluded. This should terrorize all of us: who can know when he or she may be put out of the human family?

When people don't know what is going on or why, they feel powerless. When they don't know who stands beside them and who stands against them, they fear, and that fear overrides not only reason, but also common sense, generosity, forgiveness, our Yankee penchant for fixing things, our human capacity to learn from our mistakes, and the ability to laugh at our absurdities (What else can we do when the head of Homeland Security tells us he has a "gut feeling" that Al Qaeda is buttering our toast on the wrong side?)

The dark arts of Bush & Cheney - including their insubstantial fictions of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction and the too, too solid hardware and devilishly ingenious software of their grim new "Reaper" - may yet defeat the bright hopes we have for ourselves and our children.

But we cannot give up. First we must tell Congress: If you won't or can't impeach Bush & Cheney you must at least restore the universal right to habeas corpus, and reaffirm all the Constitutional rights to due process and speedy and public trials and the protections against cruel and unusual punishment and unreasonable search and seizure. You must give us the means to defend ourselves from the artists of darkness who have taken over our nation, and help us rebuild our confidence that we live in a lawful, rational society in which we, the people, are sovereign, and all of us are members of one human family.

* * *

Postscript: My son, now 42, points out that if you secure a piece of toast with the buttered side against a cat's belly and drop the cat from some height it will spin indefinitely in midair and never land. That's because, as the necromancers of White House science would tell us, cats must always land on their feet and toast always lands with the buttered side down.

Caroline Arnold csarnold@neo.rr.com served 12 years on the staff of U.S. Senator John Glenn and is now active in community and environmental affairs in Kent, Ohio.

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