Tuesday, April 5, 2011

If we pretend the Constitution doesn't exist, maybe it won't!

Americans revere the Constitution as one of our greatest symbols.  If anyone stole it or damaged it -- the consequences would be severe.  But when it comes to living out the words and principles contained in the Constitution, we are sometimes willing to take shortcuts to achieve a desired outcome. 

I believe the current situation with detained terrorist suspects on America's military base in Guantanamo Bay is the perfect example. Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that five key suspects in the 9/11 attacks would be tried at the American Naval Base in Cuba.   This is a stark contrast to the position Holder and the Obama administration had taken in 2009, when it was announced the trials of these five men would be held in federal court in New York City.

My contention is simple -- holding these trials anywhere other than New York City is wrong and violates the spirit, if not the letter of the United States Constitution.

Let's examine the actual Constitution itself.  Article III, Section 2 reads:
"The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed ..."
What part of that statement is complicated?  The attacks on 9/11 were perpetrated mainly on Washington, D.C. and of course, New York City.  I would be willing to accept either one of these as venues for a trial in federal district court.

Critics maintain that holding the trials of these men in federal district court would prove difficult to provide a secure setting in New York.  Since when do we violate the Constitution on the basis of convenience?  Every person is entitled to the same rights as accused individuals -- even the most disgusting monsters of society, especially them.  Applying the same standard to all people is a hallmark of American justice.  The words sound so smooth, but living them out can be so difficult.

Another aspect of this fiasco I can't seem to grasp is the time taken to prosecute. Terrorist attacks took place in 2001 -- nearly ten years ago.  The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states,
"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 ..."
To be in compliance with the "speedy" part of the Constitution, the Federal Speedy Trial Act of 1974 states a person must be indicted within 30 days of arrest and then prosecution must begin withing the next 70 days.  I'm reasonably sure we've passed that point.  As the legal maxim goes, "justice delayed is justice denied."

Justice denied is also not a term that applies only to the defendants in this situation, but also to the families of the victims lost on September 11, 2001.  How long must they wait for justice?

After Holder's announcement yesterday, Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, released a written statement, commenting,
"... it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he's a war criminal."
Smith is correct about these men not being common criminals, but that doesn't make them war criminals.  What flag do they fight under?  What nation do they represent? 

Did the United States have Timothy McVeigh tried in a military court after his arrest for the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City?  Tried, convicted and executed through the federal court system.

After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center buildings netted the arrest and convinction of Ramzi Yousef.  He was also tried in federal court in New York City.  No problems there, right?

Moreover, using military tribunals to take the place of civilian courts has already been hashed out in ex parte Milligan (1866), when a group of Southern sympathizers during the Civil War sought to procure weapons from a federal arsenal and invade prisoner of war camps.  The government prosecuted them through military tribunals and secured a quick conviction, which was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.  In that instance, the Court ruled miltary tribunals cannot try citizens when civilian courts are open.

I can understand why many people wish to have these men tried and kept in Guatanamo Bay.  Military tribunals operate in a manner giving more of an advantage to the prosecution.  We can keep them far away.  But, the federal government has done a fantastic job at convicting and holding terrorists on the American mainland.  McVeigh was housed for several years successfully in near isolation until his execution.  Yousef is imprisoned in a supermax facility where he will serve out the rest of his cowardly life in near isolation.

If Americans cannot live out what our Constitution mandates, what does that say about us?  We only live up to our high standards when it is convenient?  When we ignore the Constitution, the nation takes one step closer toward forfeiting the republic that has been so carefully carved out over the past two centuries. 

John W. Dean presented an interesting thought in his article, "Presidential Powers in Times of Emergency:  Could Terrorism Result in a Constitutional Dictator?"  He wrote about how presidents in American history have greatly expanded their power in times of emergency; Lincoln, FDR, Wilson specifically.  In situations where the public is scared, they are far more willing to cede authority into the hands of one person and ignore the boundaries set by the Constitution.  Perhaps unwillingly, the Obama administration is adding to the mess.  The public is so scared, they are willing to cede another part of the Constitution into the hands of one person, who doesn't have the courage to tell them what's right.

1 comment:

  1. You'd think the tea party would have tried to run a candidate on the "I promise to fry the sucker" platform by now...