Americans seem ready to forfeit their most basic civil liberty — actually, all their civil liberties — without a whimper.
By a vote of 93-7 the Senate this month approved a military appropriations bill empowering the government to designate any U.S. citizen within the country as a terrorist and to have the military hold him indefinitely without trial and without the right to habeas corpus, the right to be brought before a court for a judgment on the legality of one’s imprisonment.
In effect the legislation is a declaration of martial law throughout the country.
The bill still has to be reconciled by a conference committee with a different version passed by the House of Representatives. But even Connecticut U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, a liberal Democrat and a member of the committee, plans to support the martial law provision and expects it to be enacted. Courtney, who used to be a lawyer, cites as consolation the money contained in the bill for Connecticut military contractors, tens of millions of dollars for jet fighter engines manufactured by the Pratt & Whitney division of United Technologies Corp. in East Hartford and for nuclear submarines made by the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton.
At least Connecticut’s junior senator, Richard Blumenthal, was one of 38 senators who voted to try to remove the martial law provision from the bill. Connecticut’s senior senator, Joseph I. Lieberman, who also used to be a lawyer but now is the Senate’s foremost advocate of perpetual imperial war, voted for martial law.
The Constitution prohibits suspension of the right of habeas corpus “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” While habeas corpus was suspended in certain circumstances during the Civil War, there is no rebellion or invasion now and no impairment of the criminal-justice system, and the mere danger of terrorism does not constitute rebellion or invasion.
President Obama is threatening to veto the legislation but not so much for its suspension of habeas corpus. Rather, the bill is objectionable to the president because it would prevent the government from transferring terrorism suspects from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to installations in the United States, even for trial.
If the bill becomes law the president and his successors will gain dictatorial power, the power exercised by the worst tyrants in history — Hitler, Stalin, and Mao — the power to kidnap anyone off the street or out of his own home and lock him away incommunicado forever. The president will be able to do that even to members of Congress themselves, and while it would suit them right for enacting such an abomination, Americans better rise up and stop it if they don’t want the country to slip into totalitarianism as Germany did in similar circumstances in 1933.
First the German people were demoralized and deprived of economic security by hyperinflation and depression. Then they were frightened into submission by the burning of the parliament building in Berlin, which was opportunistically depicted by the National Socialist-dominated coalition government as Communist Party terrorism and used as the pretext for a proclamation, issued the next day, suspending all civil liberties, including, specifically, habeas corpus. Three weeks later the Nazis persuaded parliament to surrender its power through the infamous Enabling Act, allowing the Nazi chancellor to rule by decree. He did so for 12 more years.
Eventually one of those decrees was the “Night and Fog” decree, under which people across Europe simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
Americans may have some vague awareness of the horror perpetrated by Germany back then. But do they have any idea of how closely they are following the Germans in what led to it? Our politicians don’t seem to have any idea.
Republicans who scream about the supposed oppressiveness of a government that would require everyone to have medical insurance are rushing to give that government the power to make people disappear. And Democrats who chafe at the government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriage are ready to forfeit the longest-established and most substantial liberties because a free society can never eliminate the danger that someone can plant a bomb somewhere — though a totalitarian society can’t eliminate it either.
No amount of military contracting in Connecticut can be worth even a day without due process of law. The purpose of military contracting is to protect the country, and without due process of law the country will not be worth protecting.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer.