Police State In Stars And Stripes
Why Jose Padilla Matters
When Allied troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, they headed for Berlin. Nobody knew when -- or whether -- they'd get there, but it was generally understood if the city fell, the German Reich would fall with it. In the war on terror, no correspondingly distinct benchmark for victory exists. That's because we're combating an abstraction.
Had we declared war on Al Qaeda, it might have been possible to define success. However, I'm not the first to point out that "terrorism" is a methodology. It's a way of doing things that justifies violent criminal means by appealing to lofty ends. As that definition covers events ranging from the Boston Tea Party to the LAX shootings, it's clear that any campaign mounted against "terrorism" will likely be a long one. Which brings us to the troubling matter of "dirty bomb suspect" Jose Padilla.
A small-time criminal who underwent a jailhouse conversion to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah Al Muhajir, he was arrested upon return from South Asia, where he allegedly plotted to build a radioactive weapon. The president subsequently declared him an enemy combatant. He's now in a Navy brig pending the cessation of hostilities, which, as we've seen, aren't about to end anytime soon.
Obviously, the government has a duty to protect the nation from its enemies. This case, however, brings to mind the favorite adage of a former law instructor: "when you change the facts, you change the law" applicable to them.
The other two nominal Americans nabbed thus far in the present conflict, John Walker Lindh and Yaser Esam Hambi, arguably forfeited their claim to citizenship by fighting on behalf of a foreign power. Each was captured by military forces in a combat zone.
Padilla, on the other hand, was born in Brooklyn, raised in Chicago and arrested by civilian authorities at O'Hare Airport. As we're all equal before the law, his legal status is the same as any other citizen's. If he can be forever detained by executive order without so much as a hearing before an independent magistrate, so can anybody else. When your liberty is insured solely by the goodwill and competence of those in charge, you live in a police state.
Because the erosion of rights tends to occur gradually, it's easier seen at a distance. A cabal of Roman Senators, for instance, assassinated Julius Caesar because they feared his growing power. When his successor, Augustus, finally consolidated imperial might, the Senate didn't disband but rather devolved into a ceremonial vestige of the erstwhile Republic. The civil rights of Romans slowly atrophied from inalienable guarantees under the law to mere traditions enjoyed at the pleasure of the emperor.
Meanwhile, conservative critics ask why I would go to bat for this guy and question where my loyalties lie. The answer to the latter inquiry is that they lie with the American Republic and its rule of law. Which is why Padilla matters.
M. W. Guzy is a former police detective and school teacher who now writes a weekly column for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.