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Just When You Thought You Were Safe

Christopher Suarez

Some of your basic constitutional rights, with every word you read, are being swept out from under your feet. Did you think you had a right to a trial by jury? How about a right to counsel? As a U.S. citizen, I thought that these rights would always be mine.

But alas, in the context of President Bush’s nebulously defined war on terrorism, the theater of war has expanded. This war zone is around you when you go to classes, eat in Lobdell (although the novelty of this war zone is debatable), or work on your problem sets.

In sum, this theater of war is everywhere. Because of the war zone’s supposed omnipresence, the Constitution’s “Commander-in-Chief” clause, and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration sees no problem in overstepping its constitutional bounds and invading your basic civil rights.

For roughly two years now, two men have been detained on a naval brig off the coast of South Carolina. These men, Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla, are being held incommunicado and without a right to counsel or trial. Both are suspected to be “enemy combatants” in the war on terror. Notably, though. both men are U.S. citizens. They are the subjects of major Supreme Court cases set for oral arguments on April 28 (see Rumsfeld v. Padilla and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld). In both cases, the Bush administration has failed to provide a compelling reason to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. The administration believes that the AUMF, by allowing the use of “all necessary and appropriate force” to combat terrorism, justifies such detentions.

Honestly, though, is this exercise of presidential power appropriate? In Afghanistan or in some theater of war outside of easy executive access to our judicial system, temporary detentions in this manner may make some sense. However, doing so on U.S. soil for extended periods of time is repugnant. The Supreme Court case of Ex Parte Milligan already set a precedent of justifying one’s right to access the judicial sphere in related situations. Moreover, Congress never made a direct statement explicitly allowing suspension of the “Great Writ” after Sept. 11 despite the AUMF.

If such detentions are upheld by the Supreme Court, this would set a horrible, totalitarian precedent that brings us back to the days of despotic rulers. The executive will be allowed to make the rules, determine your guilt, and execute punishment upon you unilaterally. Like Hamdi and Padilla, you simply would have to be considered to be an “enemy combatant” by the Bush administration to have such sanctions imposed upon you. Considering how loose the definition of “enemy combatant” currently is, any risk of losing my civil liberties at the mercy of this definition is not worth taking. Until a definitive ruling comes out that hopefully curtails these detentions and clarifies what an enemy combatant actually is, I better watch my back. For now, it doesn’t look like my rights are so safe after all.

Christopher Suarez is a member of the Class of 2006.