Remember America? Land of the free? Thomas Jefferson and Co. thought the whole thing up. Woody Guthrie sang about it. Martin Luther King went to jail to lay claim to its promises. Millions have gloried in it, thrived in its light, dreamed of its liberty. Yet ever since terrorists shattered the calm of a September morning in 2001, America's image as freedom's citadel has been under siege.
Who is attacking it? The last gang you'd expect. According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. government itself is exhibiting alarming disregard for traditional American rights. The government is so intent on tracking down terrorists, the monitoring group says, that it has come to see human rights as an obstacle to its mission.
It's a foolish fixation -- not to mention cruel. The 600-plus Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, notes Tuesday's report, are being held "in a type of legal black hole" -- denied any guarantee of release at the end of "active hostilities" as required by the 1949 Geneva Convention.
And that is just where the human-rights problems start: Since 9/11, the report asserts, "anyone could be picked up and detained forever," without charge or trial, as an "enemy combatant" -- merely on government say-so. This tactic has been used mostly against noncitizens, 1,200 of whom have been secretly imprisoned.
Such policies are the stuff of dictatorships, not democracies. But such signs of Big Brotherish behavior don't seem to bother the White House much these days -- whether at home or abroad. In fact, since 9/11, the United States seems strangely willing to overlook human-rights abuses even when they occur overseas: U.S. support for human rights in countries that are critical to the antiterrorism campaign -- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for instance -- is especially muted, and often entirely absent.
This worries Human Rights Watch, and it should worry Americans. The White House "tendency to ignore human rights in fighting terrorism is not only disturbing in its own right," the new report says. "It is dangerously counterproductive. The smoldering resentment it breeds risks generating terrorist recruits, puts off potential anti-terrorism allies and weakens efforts to curb terrorist atrocities."
When the United States shrugs off freedom and human rights, other nations properly wonder what sort of war they're being asked to join. Fighting terrorism, after all, only makes sense if there's something better on offer.
Until now, the United States did offer something better: a government dedicated to principles of equality, fairness and due process -- to the notion that liberty is stronger than terror and need not bow to it. That certainty has long been the world's beacon -- the light that helps the lost find their way from fear to freedom. The thought that the light is dimming -- that the most important bastion of human rights is willing to trade its treasure for the chancy prospect of a little safety -- should horrify those who remember what American was born to be. Human freedom is not a commodity to be traded. Not for anything. Not ever.
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