Suppose you were a humanitarian relief worker. You spend your time at home and abroad bringing food aid to those whose lives have been devastated by disaster. You feel like you’re devoting your life to a good cause and truly helping your fellow man.
Then the U.S. government sends you to jail, without a charge or trial, forever.
When the War on Terror is over, you’re told, you might have a sporting chance of getting out. Because the War on Terror is totally going to end any day now, right? Dream big, detainees!
If that doesn’t strike you as a good scenario, your instincts are correct. It is, however, a conceivable situation if the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, or S.1867) is signed into law. Under the bill’s Section 1031*, the federal government will claim the authority to indefinitely detain anyone, anywhere, if it deems them a threat in the fight against terror. Indeed, the NDAA “designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland,” as Senator Lindsey Graham, as strong supporter of the measure, has put it. And the qualifications for being a terrorist threat are vague—so vague, in fact, that a “relief worker could end up in indefinite military detention without charge or trial for giving food or medical assistance to someone who turns out to have been a Taliban member or supporter.”
To say this is a scary bill is to utter a massive understatement, and it’s no wonder that civil libertarians of all political persuasions have been up in arms as the NDAA passed the Senate with a whopping 93 percent approval rating from our “representatives.” So here are five reasons to join the fight against the NDAA:
1. It’s easily abused. As Jon Stewart cleverly pointed out, the NDAA’s language in describing potential detainees is so broad that a case could be made for indefinitely detaining President Obama. Senator Rand Paul reported that other people who could be considered potential terrorists are those missing fingers and those storing seven or more days of food store in their house. At least the connection with the seven days of food thing is obvious; everyone knows the road to terrorism is paved with canned goods and Sam’s Club membership, right?
In short, as the example I gave above also illustrates, the NDAA creates a giant highway for the government to take toward abuse some of our most basic rights…and then declares that all land everywhere might be highway.
2. It’s unconstitutional. This is a no-brainer, and by itself should be sufficient legal cause to send the NDAA to the garbage bin. Alas, the vast majority of our Congress seems to have misplaced their copies of the Constitution. Perhaps we should send them new ones for Christmas? But I digress.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution contains a clear prohibition of depriving people of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which alone ought to eliminate the possibility of indefinite detention without trial. But if a little more persuasion is needed, the Fourth Amendment’s banning of warrantless seizures of persons or property and the Sixth Amendment’s demand to a speedy and public trial will together tie up any loose ends.
3. President Obama has threatened a veto because the NDAA would limit his power, not because it poses a danger to civil liberties. White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that Obama is actually considering a veto because he finds the bill too restrictive for his indefinite detention tastes: “Any bill that challenges or constrains the president's critical authority to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation will prompt his senior advisors to recommend a veto.” **
Perhaps the President is motivated by a love of daily grocery shopping—or perhaps he is simply continuing to engage in the long, bipartisan tradition of presidents autonomously expanding the power of the Executive Branch: “Obama, like his predecessor, wants the leeway to keep in civilian custody, and maybe even give them a trial, if he so chooses. Those of us who are not the president are apt to be more concerned about the unchecked power the bill gives him to lock us up and throw away the key.”
4. Speaking of bipartisanship, the NDAA is bipartisan, but in a bad way. I’m not one to universally decry bipartisanship. In practice, it’s rather like the word “very,” in that it intensifies whatever it modifies. A good bipartisan effort is stronger than if one party had gone it alone; a bad bipartisan plan, like the NDAA, showcases exactly how little most of our congressional representatives are interested in preserving our liberty.
As I mentioned previously, 93 out of 100 Senators voted in favor of this indefinite detention bill. Only three members of each major party and one independent voted against it. In the House, freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is organizing a coalition of opposition to NDAA, but so far it’s a similarly small group. This situation is aptly described in the words of the bumper sticker: “It’s not left vs. right; it’s the state vs. you.” The state is very bipartisan in its plan to acquire greater detention powers—at your expense.
5. It’s wrong. The whole point of the constitutional restraints on the American justice system is that it is, in fact, wrong to imprison people indefinitely on suspicion of a crime without a fair trial proving their guilt. What the NDAA would make permissible is a gross disregard for basic human rights to freedom and security—rights which are inviolate in the absence of proof of wrongdoing publicly established in a court of law.
John Hay wrote in 1872 that “The evils of tyranny are rarely seen but by him who resists it.” In the case of the NDAA, the evil is obvious. Resist it.
*Editors note: As is often the case with fast-paced legislative fights, details constantly are changing. Section 1031 is now Section 1021 in the conference report.
** The White House has since dropped its veto threat.