October 11, 2006

The Abyss Stares Back

Jose Padilla
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 89, quoted at the beginning of
the argument section in the motion to dimiss charges against Jose Padilla

Jose Padilla is not a hero. At minimum, he is a man with a troubled, criminal past and a history of violence; at worst, he may be a radical Islamist terrorist bent on inflicting pain and death on the people of this country. But he is also a man whose fate will have profound impact on this nation and the way in which we act to protect - or diminish - human rights, and his case is worth re-examining with the recent passage of the Military Commissions Act.

In 2002, Padilla was accused of plotting to detonate a dirty bomb on U.S. soil. President Bush declared that he represented "a continuing, present, and grave danger to the national security of the United States," and designated him an "enemy combatant." An American citizen, he was imprisoned for three and a half years in a navy brig with no access to an attorney, and it was only when the Supreme Court indicated it was prepared to rule on that fact that he was even charged with a crime.

By 2005, allegations against Padilla - who was originally touted as having communicated with the top ranks of al-Qaeda - had dwindled to accusations that he had merely traveled across the Middle East and communicated with terrorist fundraisers. More recently, the government's last remaining terrorism count was thrown out, and the prosecution has struggled to provide substantial evidence against the accused. Now, Padilla's lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him on the grounds of "outrageous government conduct." The basis for the motion is twofold: Jose Padilla was imprisoned without access to counsel; and he was tortured repeatedly during his incarceration.

This should be repeated: Jose Padilla, an American citizen, was locked up without access to an attorney and tortured for three and a half years.

Clearly, this violates every precept of the American judicial system. Habeas corpus, the right to a speedy, public trial is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, within the Bill of Rights:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
The account of Padilla's treatment contained in the motion is harrowing, and there are extensive excerpts at David Markus' Southern District of Florida Blog. Knowing that this has taken place in the United States, and that this very behavior has been sanctioned by new legislation should be gut-wrenching to anyone who cares about this country. As a police officer commenting at Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory concluded in her outstanding post :
If they are right and I am wrong then being American is little more than being situated in a certain place on the globe with no claim to moral authority beyond what can be enforced through bullets and bombs. Then we are little more than a street gang with assertions of control over our turf. Then we are truly lost.
In the end, it doesn't matter if Jose Padilla is a nice guy, the kind of man you'd like to date your daughter, or someone you'd welcome as a neighbor. What matters is that he is an American citizen, and more importantly, a human being. He is a human being who was denied the rights for which the founders of this nation went to war against colonial rule, and about which they stated in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
These unalienable rights are the basis for the United States of America, and they embody what has been honest and fair and great and uplifting about this nation. If Jose Padilla can be held against his will without recourse - in violation of everything for which we are supposed to stand - then so can anyone else.

As a people, we are judged by how well we live up to the principles we expound and to which we aspire, not just when it is easy to do so, but when it is hardest. By allowing our government to unjustly imprison and torture in our name we fail our nation and ourselves.

It is that simple.


Anonymous said...

Habeas Corpus-Don't Be Taken From Home Without It

Anonymous said...

Alright, so we realize this is bad and that something should be done. What? Have you given us any helpful suggestions for fixing the problem, or merely told us that there is one?

PBI said...


Are you being purposely obtuse and confrontational? Did you actually read the post, or - to paraphrase your own words - merely decide to drop some poorly-considered comments here, on your way to the rest of the internet?

On a fundamental level, how about expecting the government - as I wrote - to follow the habeas corpus and due process provisions of the Constitution? Failing that, here's a short list of things I have done that might also work for you or anyone else:
1. Help bring public pressure on elected officials to address the case properly
2. Support organizations working to right this wrong
3. Vote constitutional lawbreakers out of office.

Was that really so hard to figure out?


Anonymous said...


My apologies for appearing to be the very thing that I detest: an internet lowlife. As a general rule I rarely read blogs--rarer still do I leave comments. Still, I did read your blog and I did comment rather cryptically, so it's fair of you to take me to task.

First, let me say that I appreciated your article. It is intelligent, balanced, and seeks to correct a terrible injustice. Your writing is strong and your message is a good one. I especially liked your conclusion: "If Jose Padilla can be held against his will without recourse - in violation of everything for which we are supposed to stand - then so can anyone else." As humans, we have a troubling history of not speaking out for the good of others. Some don't because of apathy, some out of fear for what may happen to themselves if they do, and some because they dislike the person or group being unjustly treated. Yet, as you rightly put, we not only owe it to the abused to help end the abuse, we owe it to ourselves. If we allow others freedoms and inalienable rights to be squashed without protest, what is to stop our own from receiving the same fate?

Second, because I think highly of what you've written, I want it to be as effective as it can be in accomplishing its mission. You've opened a large, scary, and complex topic for the average person--the kind of person who drops poorly constructed comments on their way to the rest of the internet. The average person, provided they actually read the whole article, is not necessarily the kind of person who will go out of their way to research how they can get involved. Not only is it time consuming, some may genuinely want to help but feel overwhelmed and not know how. That is why I left my unfortunately short comment. I hoped that you would provide a few links to organizations you personally endorse or else more information about ways one can get involved, similar to what you did in your reply to me.

I know this sounds silly, but the truth is most people don't want to be bothered by abstract terms. They don't wish to be told that they have to expect, or force their government to follow the habeas corpus and due process provisions of the Constitution. Though this is the end goal, they would much prefer simple steps. The current generation of twenty somethings, on average, are channel changers, web surfers, and sparksnotes skimmers. They like things catchy, direct, and simple. Again, telling them about a bad situation might make them pause a moment, before they flip to something else. If our nation can do it to pictures of cute, but starving children on TV, we can do it to Jose Padilla. It doesn't make it right, but this is what happens.

If you are like me, your inclination may not be friendly toward such people. You may not even care to attract their attention to your blog. I, myself, am certainly frustrated with people who can't seem to think for themselves, who can't seem to find their own ways of helping to solve the problem. That said, I also realize that if I don't make it easier for people to do the just thing, many of them won't.

My apologies again for my first, terse comment. I meant my words to be helpful, but because you don't know me, and I didn't explain what I meant, I can see how you might think I was whipping off a knee jerk response.

Thanks again for your article. Keep up the good work. We need people like you who are eloquent in speech and passionate about goodness to constantly remind us how we can help others and where we ourselves fall short.


PBI said...

Hi Pete,

Thanks for following up, and for putting a name to your thoughts. I greatly appreciate the kind words, as well as the clarification of your initial comments.

Although I think you raise an interesting point, this wasn't the first post I wrote about Jose Padilla, and it was far from the last. (Click on the "padilla" tag at the end of the post to bring them all up.)

I have purposefully tried to avoid outright advocacy for specific action in most (although not all) of the posts I write. My intent is to let the reader draw his or her own conclusions, and if readers need suggestions for action, I am always here to have that conversation.

I certainly understand what you are saying about the wider audience, but I am not necessarily writing for the broadest possible group of people. I don't think my writing style would be as effective if I did, but I will keep your thoughts in mind going forward, as I am always open to constructive criticism.