In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government vastly expanded its power to arrest and detain those suspected of having ties to terrorism. One such person, Jose Padilla, was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for supposedly planning to attack Americans with a “dirty bomb.” Classified as an “enemy combatant” by President Bush, he has since been held without being formally charged, roiling many civil libertarians. Last week, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the government’s authority to detain him, without charging him, until the end of the conflict with al-Qaida.
This precedent is a dangerous encroachment on a number of constitutional rights. The war on terrorism cannot be used to violate or suspend the guarantees of the Constitution. The 5th and 6th Amendments explicitly limit the government’s authority to detain civilians, and guarantee those accused the due process of law. By ruling that the war on terrorism can be used to suspend those rights, the 4th Circuit has substantially infringed on American civil liberties.
Fundamentally, the federal government should not be allowed to permanently detain citizens without giving them legal recourse through the court system. The 6th Amendment specifically to a fair and speedy trial was explicitly designed to protect people from that danger. By allowing the government to hold anyone designated an “enemy combatant,” the court has opened the doors to a whole new range of abuses. Without jury trials, the government will have no need to prove guilt before arbitrarily jailing those suspected of conspiring against the United States.
In the past, federal officials have exploited their powers far beyond the limits of the Constitution, and the American public has suffered. The McCarthyite witch-hunts of the Cold War and J. Edgar Hoover’s thousand-page dossiers on influential political activists are a clear reminder: When given the chance, the federal government has not hesitated to abuse its power. Now, with a new and elusive threat of terrorism replacing communism, the federal government has been granted the authority to detain U.S. citizens without affording them the protections set forth in the Bill of Rights.
This latest ruling represents a clear and present danger to the civil rights of all Americans. The Constitution contains no loopholes for terrorism. The rights presented are not dependent on the situation; they are fundamental guarantees. While the government should work diligently to keep Americans safe, it must do so within the limits of power described in the Constitution.