January 23, 2008

Losing Another Piece of America's Soul

Last week brought the news that Canada has added the United States - along with Israel - to its torture watch list, putting the U.S. in the dubious company of nations like Syria, China, Iran and Afghanistan. The list serves as part of a course on torture awareness given to Canadian diplomats and is designed to help them determine whether prisoners they visit abroad have been mistreated. This week brought news confirming that Canada's decision was justified and correct.

Readers of this blog know that one of the subjects on which I write most frequently is the sweeping loss of civil liberties and civil rights that has been perhaps the blackest mark in a long list of black marks left on this country by George W. Bush and the cadre of brutally corrupt neoconservatives that back him. The abuses of power by this White House are almost too numerous to list, but one in particular has stood out as a particularly tragic example of what is wrong with our government and our country today: the case of Jose Padilla. (I have posted about Mr. Padilla several times over the past year and half. Readers looking for background are directed to the following articles: The Constitution as Inconvenience, The Abyss Stares Back, The Disappeared, A Nation of Hypocrites, and Any One of Us.) As I wrote in the last of those posts:
No single case better illustrates how far the system of American justice has fallen under the regime of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales than Padilla's. It encompasses denial of habeas corpus, secret imprisonment, incarceration at the president's discretion, torture, tainted evidence, secret evidence and denial of the right to counsel; but what's truly abhorrent is that that litany of transgressions against the Constitution isn't even exhaustive.
Today, as the New York Times reported, Jose Padilla received a 17-year sentence, convicted on charges of "supporting terrorism" that had absolutely zero to do with the stated justifications the White House offered when President Bush unilaterally decided he should be disappeared into a Navy brig, forbidden access to a lawyer, and tortured. From the Times story:

Prosecutors, who long ago dropped the ''dirty bomb'' claim that made Padilla infamous, had sought life sentences for Padilla and two co-defendants, but a federal judge said authorities never even proved Padilla was a terrorist.

''There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere,'' U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said. ''There was never a plot to overthrow the United States government.''
Ultimately, Cooke said at the sentencing hearing, there was not enough evidence linking Padilla and the other two men to specific acts of terrorism or victims.
Despite this admission, and despite significant testimony that Mr. Padilla was tortured by the government and now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he was sentenced to more than a decade and a half in prison. It is a measure of how stacked the deck was in his case that this lengthy incarceration comes as a relief to the accused's mother, Estela Lebron, who said: ''I feel good about everything. This is amazing. He's not a terrorist. ... He's just a human being.'' In short, Ms. Lebron was relieved that her son, who had apparently contemplated becoming a terrorist would no longer be tortured at the behest of President Bush, and would only lose a total of 20 years of his life for what is essentially "thoughtcrime." (Nonetheless, the Justice Department moved swiftly to justify her belief that her son has been prosecuted vindictively, declaring that it will appeal the sentence as"too lenient.")

That said, as I have written from the beginning with regard to Jose Padilla, I am not championing him as an innocent victim with an unblemished record. It has been clear going all the way back to his arrest however, that the United States government so far overstepped the bounds of anything that could be called reasonable or just behavior that it has rendered itself as criminal as the man it once dubbed "The Dirty Bomber."

Irrespective of the crimes of which he may have been charged, the Constitution effectively did not exist for Mr. Padilla - who is a U.S. citizen - and that is fundamentally un-American and unquestionably wrong. While he has obtained some minute measure of justice in the form of a prison term that will actually end some day, the fact of the matter is that the United States has acted in an utterly unforgivable manner.
George W. Bush personally ordered this man imprisoned without evidence sufficient to stand up in open court. When he got caught rigging the game, the President charged him with other crimes, forced him through the legal system using suspect evidence - all the while obstructing the defense's case that their client had been physically and psychologically abused - and has now managed to get him jailed for the length of time it takes someone to reach their senior year of high school counting forward from birth.

Is the country in any way safer because of these actions and policies? No, it is not. Rather, we have spent piles of time, money and effort to imprison and try Jose Padilla in an insubstantial act of vengeance while other, real dangers confront the nation. Worse, we have allowed Mr. Bush to act like the king he clearly believes himself to be. In so doing, we have lost another piece of America's soul and soiled what remains.

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