Why we aren’t at war 

One John Militello, clearly one of my more fervent supporters, writes to me that “my ultra-left-winger view ... does not take into account that we are at war, a war different than any other in our history.” And he adds, almost nonchalantly, “Is it going to be a perpetual war? Are we going to lose our civil liberties? I don’t know.”

Well, here’s what I know. We ought to fight with every breath for our civil liberties — and for all the rights and protections they afford. Even for, or perhaps especially for, those who don’t like us. For if we lose our civil rights, the goddamn terrorists win, no matter what happens.

I may not get the Nathan Hale award for this, but, hello: We are not, repeat, not, at war. According to the Constitution of the United States, that takes an official declaration by Congress. Presidents improperly stopped doing that after World War II for various reasons.

But George Bush saying this is a war doesn’t make it so, not legally, anyway. You don’t have to be a historian to know that some of our wonderful presidentially decreed wars have turned out badly, especially when the presidents have lied to us about who and what we are fighting for — which several of them did, all throughout Vietnam.

Couldn’t happen again, you say? Yeah, right. We are now engaged in a uniquely shadowy so-called “war.” We don’t even have a nation-state as our focus, just something we are calling al-Qaeda.

Now it should be self-evident that no one should have any tolerance for terrorism or suicide bombers. If we can find Osama bin Laden and kill him, good. We should want anybody connected with Sept. 11 prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Yet, what a lot of people are missing is that accusation and guilt are not the same. Our various federal and state governments, best in the world though they may be, have on more than one occasion persecuted and ruined the lives and reputations of innocent people. Think Joe Hill. Sacco and Vanzetti. J. Robert Oppenheimer. The untold thousands savaged by McCarthyism.

The latest twist in the plot brings us the “dirty bomber,” a Brooklyn-born Hispanic named Jose “Chubby” Padilla who was active in Chicago street gangs and later allegedly became an al-Qaeda and begin calling himself Abdullah al-Mujahir. (Not even Norman Lear could top that.)

Chub was arrested on May 8 in Chicago, and the authorities couldn’t decide what to charge him with. Finally, when the judge was about to let him go, President Bush issued an order calling him an “enemy combatant” and transferring him to military custody.

They did that so they could hold him indefinitely without charging him. Only this month, after Democrats began to utter their first timid criticisms of the way things were going, did Ashcroft announce that Chubby had been sent to scout targets for a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive designed to spray radioactive material.

Allegedly this information came from a top al-Qaeda official who was captured in Pakistan and is now being “interrogated” at Camp X-Ray, presumably without a lawyer. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised by anything men in such circumstances might say. There is no indication Chub or anyone else had or has the materials to make a dirty bomb — or any bomb at all.

But let’s assume that there is something to all this. Then it is even more imperative that Padilla-al-Mujahir be given all his rights as an American citizen and tried as one — for treason, even, if the government thinks those charges are merited. If these allegations are true, he seems a good bit worse than the much-ballyhooed “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, who, as far as I can tell, is guilty of absolutely nothing except being a naive kid with little common sense.

It’s critically important that in thwarting our enemies we not become like them. Militello sent me a Washington Times quote in which an emotional U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on being told about the “dirty bomber,” supposedly said: “If you aid and abet the enemy, whether you are a citizen or not, you’re not entitled to the right of due process.”

That’s dead wrong. Due process has to do with guaranteeing the individual rights of the accused — not the convicted. Nobody would have any problem if the government caught Padilla trying to install a dirty bomb and arrested him or even blew him away.

But we should all have huge problems with the government locking up this man — an American citizen — without filing any charges, especially if this is based on the testimony of a foreign prisoner being held incommunicado.

Schumer himself knows better. Late last year, in announcing hearings into our planned secret military tribunals, he said that even that significant departure from our legal system should be overseen by Congress to ensure “the nation’s longstanding tradition of due process.”

Last week, the Department of Justice was forced by a court order to reveal it is still holding “at least” 147 people in secret, and that 18 of them are not represented by lawyers. Seventy-three of them are being held in connection with the events of Sept. 11.

What we don’t know is how many others may have pleaded guilty to whatever or how many noncitizens were deported or how many haven’t been charged with any crimes at all.

This will eventually be seen as a black mark on our history. Even an old ultra-left-winger knows that our system, based on equal protection under the law, is far too strong to be brought down by a bunch of crazies with box cutters. No, only we can destroy it. So let’s not.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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