Justice is done One of your neighbors has a grudge against you and secretly informs on you to the police. The next thing you know you're being held in a prison in a strange country. You don't know what you're charged with or what the evidence against you is, and you can't go to court to find out. You end up staying in that prison for years without any trial.
That's the position that many of the approximately 270 prisoners incarcerated at "Camp X-Ray" in the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, find themselves in. Thanks to a landmark decision last Friday by the US Supreme Court, that unconscionable situation will change.
The court ruled, 5-4, that the ancient principle of habeas corpus - the right of an accused person to know the evidence the government has against him - applies to Guantanamo prisoners. Under last week's ruling, Guantanamo prisoners will be able to go into federal district courts to demand that the government show why they should remain incarcerated.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer made up the majority. The Gang of Four - Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, all appointed by George W. Bush or his father - dissented.
There is no principle in the Western legal tradition more fundamental or more important than habeas corpus. America's founders explicitly wrote the protection of habeas corpus into Article I of 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."
There aren't any rebellions or invasions underway in the United States, but in the atmosphere of national panic that followed 9/11 the Bush regime decided it could get away with scrapping habeas corpus. The people jailed at Gitmo - often under brutal conditions - are not convicted terrorists or even, in many cases, suspected terrorists. They're people who George W. Bush or his surrogates have labeled "unlawful enemy combatants," a catch-all category that can be stretched to include almost anybody - especially when we are fighting an open-ended "war" not against any defined enemy, but against the broad and elastic concept of "terror."
There are those - including the four dissenting justices - who apparently believe the threat of terrorism is so horrific that it warrants tossing out the Constitution and essential human rights. They should remember that, as Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times." If we toss aside our fundamental freedoms to "save America," there won't be much left of America that's worth saving.
It was truly frightening that last Friday's victory for freedom was won by such a slender margin; one more Bush appointee on the court and the decision probably would have gone the other way. But narrow as the win was, we'll take it - and give Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens the GLASS SLIPPER.