Last night, at the Republican National Convention, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin took a dig at Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, for what’s apparently become an embarrassing notion to Republicans: the American commitment to civil rights.
“Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America,” Palin pronounced in her folksy Alaskan twang. “He’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”
Judging by the applause, it was an effective rhetorical swipe at the Democratic standard-bearer. But it’s an odd thing to hear a vice presidential candidate mocking the very American notion that people suspected of wrongdoing have a right to defend themselves against the charges.
The Bush administration has decided that those rights don’t apply to anyone suspected of being linked to terrorism — no matter how thin, or faulty, or just plain absent the evidence against them might be.
That more than half of the men and boys detained at Guantanamo Bay as suspected terrorists — many for years and many subject to torture by U.S. authorities — were eventually released without charge suggests that there may be a reason for having those minimum rights accorded to suspects after all.
Like current Vice President Dick Cheney, the GOP nominee apparently thinks that respecting “rights” are just another way of coddling our enemies.
Such actions are not without precedent in the United States. During World War II, for example (a war that was officially declared and did have a definite end, unlike the present one), FDR signed an executive order forcing the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans for the duration of hostilities with Japan. The issue went to the Supreme Court, and in Korematsu v. U.S., the court upheld the executive internment order. That, of course, has become one of the huge embarrassments of 20th-century American history.
“I remember studying Korematsu in law school, and thinking, of course, that could never happen again,” said Eric Lewis, a partner at Baach Robinson and Lewis, a Washington law firm, who’s representing former Guantanamo detainees suing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others for authorizing their torture.
Until now. “This,” Lewis continued, “is the legal issue of our time.”
Palin’s speech last night suggests that in a McCain-Palin administration, the indefinite detention and abuse of foreigners without charges will remain an issue for at least another four years. And it could well be that if McCain has his way with the Supreme Court, we could easily end up with another decision as infamous as Korematsu.