Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Rights for Murderers

Via Eschaton, I read a Huffington Post piece by Michael Smerconish. It was about a concert he went to:

Last Wednesday night I sat in the front row for a Roger Waters' performance at Madison Square Garden which featured his solo material and many cuts from the Floyd, including Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. (He'll be at the Hollywood Bowl October 5th, 6th and 8th.) I was accompanied by my buddy, Paul Lauricella, a Philadelphia lawyer whose politics are closer to Waters than my own. The two of us fit right in. The crowd was diverse, but largely comprised of guys like me - white, middle aged, with receding hair and expanding waists.

It should have been a night to have a few beers and enjoy the soundtrack of my life. Instead, I sat there in my expensive seat, and heckled the guy whose music I know by heart.

Waters' politics are no longer just liberal, they're over the top.


Then the pig came out.

I refer to a giant, inflatable pig, a hallmark of many Floyd shows, and the symbol of my aforementioned favorite album. Only this time the pig was a billboard for Waters' twisted priorities. "Habeus Corpus Matters", it said, among other things. How appalling. I wondered how many in the New York City audience had lost relatives or friends in the attack of 5 years ago and now were witness to his call for more rights for their murderers?

"Go visit Ground Zero", I yelled again.

More rights for murderers? More than for the rest of us? Not really. A daily Kos diary explains why a group of federal judges opposes the suspension of habeas corpus:

Last Thursday nine former federal judges sent a letter to Congress [pdf text] detailing their opposition to the proposed McCain, Graham, Warner Military Commissions Act of 2006 which would strip US prisoners held outside the United States from their right to habeas corpus.

We applaud Congress for taking action establishing procedures to try individuals for war crimes and, in particular, Senator Warner, Senator Graham, and others for ensuring that those procedures prohibit the use of secret evidence and evidence gained by coercion. Revoking habeas corpus, however, creates the perverse incentive of allowing individuals to be detained indefinitely on that very basis by stripping the federal courts of their historic inquiry into the lawfulness of a prisoner's confinement.

Why is this important? What is habeas corpus? And, why should we care?

Simply, habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, is vital to a free society because it is the principle means by which government is restrained from indiscriminately and indefinitely imprisoning people. Habeas corpus "is a legal proceeding in which an individual held in custody can challenge the propriety of that custody under the law."

The nine judges write:

The habeas petitions ask whether there is sufficient factual and legal basis for a prisoner's detention. This inquiry is at once simple and momentous. Simple because it is an easy matter for judges to make this determination - federal judges have been doing this every day, in every courtroom in the country, since this Nation's founding. Momentous because it safeguards the most hallowed judicial role in our constitutional democracy - ensuring that no man is imprisoned unlawfully. Without habeas, federal courts will lose the power to conduct this inquiry.

Habeas corpus, which has it's roots in English common law going back to the 12th Century, has been the cornerstone of liberty in the United States for the entire history of the country. It is enshrined in the Constitution.

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it. (Article One, section nine).

Prior to the Bush Administration, habeas corpus had only been suspended four times. Famously, during the Civil War, by Lincoln and later by Grant in the early 1870's as part of federal civil rights action against the Ku Klux Klan. The United States was able to fight two world wars and numerous international conflicts without suspending the right to a fair trial.

In the deepest sense this whole debate is not about the rights of murderers. It is about us as a society, about the values that we believe in and about the kind of world we want to build. Do we want a world where people can be "disappeared", never to be seen again? Do we want a world where innocents might be tortured and kept indefinitely, just so that no murderer will ever go free because he or she was given a chance to go to court?

Michael Smerconish's reaction sounded to me like a demand for revenge: someone, somewhere, has to answer for the terrible pain of the massacres that took place five years ago. I can understand the desire for revenge. I can even understand the hatred and the fear. But we shouldn't take our revenge on those who are not guilty, and we shouldn't remove their ability to prove their innocence.