A Wake-Up Call

by Shaun Stewart | 10/30/06 6:00am

Last week, President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This sweeping legislation gives the president unprecedented power to wage the "war on terror," disregard the Geneva convention and gut the Constitution.

One of the main components of the bill allows the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for any non-citizen he deems an "enemy combatant." For anyone unfamiliar with habeas corpus, it is essentially the Constitutional concept that says that the government cannot imprison people for long periods of time without charging them with a crime and allowing them to come before a judge. By suspending this essential part of the Constitution, Congress has given Bush the power to throw anyone he deems an "enemy combatant" into prison for as long as he sees fit (though a number of the bill's authors claim that the bill does not allow indefinite detention). Bush can imprison them without ever allowing them to come before a judge or have a lawyer, or even charging them with a crime. Here's the kicker: an "enemy combatant" can be almost anyone the president chooses. So, if tomorrow the president decides that some innocent foreigner is an "enemy combatant," even if they have committed no crime, and broken no law, they can be thrown into an American military prison, stripped of basic American rights to a speedy trial before a judge and jury and be left in said prison until the president decides to let them have a "trial" before a panel of military officers. The immediate effect of this law is that it prevents hundreds of Guantanamo Bay prisoners from seeing a federal judge, effectively dashing any hopes for those men to get a fair trial in the U.S. legal system.

The bill does not stop there. It also allows the military trials to introduce hearsay evidence, something that is strictly prohibited by the Constitution. Essentially, hearsay evidence is any evidence which is not heard or seen first-hand by the witness, and which goes against the law and tradition of our legal system. Additionally, the bill allows the admission of testimony made under duress (read: torture), violating another fundamental tenet of our judicial system.

Speaking of which, the bill also makes Article Three of the Geneva Convention (the treaty banning the torture of prisoners of war) optional. Basically, this allows the government to, if it so wishes, torture "enemy combatants." The administration has said that it will not torture, but merely use "coercive methods." However, it has classified the list of newly acceptable "coercive methods" and refused to answer questions about what techniques it uses.

If any of this scares you, that is good. It should scare you. This is the latest Bush administration move to strip the citizens of this nation of the basic rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Starting with the Patriot Act in 2001, the government has given itself the ability to subpoena every transaction we make, look at every medical record we have, listen to our phone conversations without ever consulting a judge and conduct searches without warrants. This latest bill should be a wake-up call to Americans that the government is out of control at the expense of our individual rights. We need to be much more active in defending our precious civil liberties. This administration and its proponents would have us believe that it is unpatriotic to question their anti-liberties policies, but I believe there is nothing more patriotic than defending our rights and privacy. In fact, these fundamental rights are America's base. Our founding fathers rejected the oppressive British government, and founded a new nation rooted, to its very core, in personal liberties and freedom. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."

This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This is an American issue. We need to tell our government that we value the Constitution, that we value the Bill of Rights and that we will no longer stand by and watch these great documents be shredded. Consider this: how can we ever hope to beat oppressive regimes like the Taliban or Kim Jong Il's government if we become just like them?