As is to be expected, the blogosphere, twitterverse, and various other social media sites lit up with questions and opinions concerning the issue. Much of it concerned whether or not the government was obligated to extend Constitutional rights to non-citizens. As a friend of mine asked on Facebook, “Are the Bill of Rights fundamental? If so, should the American government recognize them even for non-citizens?”
The answer requires looking beyond the framework of our Constitutional government to a basic question of human dignity. After all, the Bill of Rights is not just because it is a part of American government. It is a part of American government because it is just, and our founding fathers had enough sense to recognize it. So the question isn’t really “are prisoners entitled to the same rights as American citizens?” Rather, we ought to be asking “is it just to hold men captive without charge or trial?”
But there’s another layer of the onion to peel back. Typically, we’ve justified holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay because they’re enemy combatants. Theoretically, enemy combatants don’t require a trial because they were apprehended in the act of waging warfare against the United States. Rather than being brought before a just legal system, they can be simply held as prisoners of war until the end of a conflict.
The question, however, is what kind of conflict are we fighting? We’re not fighting a conventional war. The prisoners we take are not obviously uniformed, and it’s often unclear whether they were even engaged in acts of violence. Furthermore, there is no clear objective to this war (the eradication of terror is not a clear objective because it can never be accomplished this side of heaven), so there is no idea when the conflict will end and the prisoners will be released (as POWs would). Some of the current prisoners have been held for 12 years already.
Once we phrase it that way, the answer becomes obvious. Due process of law is enshrined in our American legal system because we believe that if a person’s guilt is not clear, they should not be deprived of liberty without first being convicted before a just court of law. Once the question is answered, we are bound by justice to rectify the situation.
Posted by Nick Barden