Guest post by Amezuki, not by Gary Farber
You all know me by a different pseudonym, and I'll reintroduce myself properly later.
But in the meantime, a word from our Founders:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence stands, in my mind, as one of the greatest political documents in history.
Like our Constitution, it stands on the shoulders of many other exalted works, and my opinion is not in any way intended to denigrate those works--but what makes it stand out in my mind is not just the role it had in the birth of our nation, but in the simple, unequivocal and straightforward statements of first principles it contains.
Foremost among these is the well-known passage I quoted above. Its evocative power was such that Martin Luther King, one of the most eloquent speakers and users of language our nation has known, had no need to embellish it further when quoting it, save to correctly note that it was a promise our country had yet to fully honor. "All men are created equal."
Think about that for a moment. All men. You will notice a distinct lack of footnotes, equivocation, qualifications or exceptions to the word "all".
Jefferson could have written--but did not write--a narrower statement such as "all Americans." At the time of the writing, America as such did not yet exist; “we the people” were a collection of citizens of the British Crown, many of whom were still loyal despite their disenchantment.
Our Founders at the time, if they thought of themselves as something other than Englishmen, typically thought themselves as, say, Virginians. They could not invoke nationalism or any other abstract social construct as the source of these rights--they had to appeal to an authority higher than King George III himself.
And while I do not share their belief in a Creator, I do share their belief that there are certain inherent and inalienable rights that human beings possess simply by virtue of being human.
It is and ought to be a self-evident truth. All human beings. Not all who were fortunate enough to possess American citizenship, but all of mankind. To whatever degree we forget, disregard, or encroach upon the universality of these rights, we betray the principles on which our nation was founded.
Our fealty to these principles has never been perfect--not even from the very beginning. History is rife with examples of disfavored groups regarded by law and society as less deserving of those rights than others, and I won't belabor the obvious by dipping into the well of, for example, African-American slavery or the genocide of Native Americans.
But these principles have suffered a renewed assault in the wake of 9/11, perversely and ostensibly in aid of protecting the country founded on them. The Declaration of Independence, while not commonly thought of by laymen as part of American law, has been cited many times in case law by the Supreme Court, the details of which I will leave to the lawyers among us. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights were written on the foundation it laid--a foundation undermined by attempts to draw arbitrary and convenient distinctions between human beings, saying that this group over here has inalienable rights, but this group over here does not. I, an American citizen, have these rights; you, who are not, do not.
This is a deeply offensive argument. And if the statement of principles at the beginning of the Declaration is to mean anything at all, the offensiveness of the this argument must be self-evident--it should not need the volume of text I've generated in opposition to it, and it should not be a subject for debate.
That we have to expend effort to refute it at all ought to be a source of shame for those Americans who are capable of feeling it. For if these truths are indeed self-evident, and if we are to cherish and uphold the laws enacted to protect those rights, then it follows that there are some things which we should all be able to agree are unequivocally, indefensibly wrong--period--even if we disagree passionately about the issues in the surrounding context, differ on how we define some of the terms, or can imagine contrived and desperate scenarios where one might make an exception.
Rape is wrong.
Torture is wrong.
Terrorism is wrong.
And as well, among many other further examples, indefinite detention without due process is wrong. These things are wrong not just because they are harmful to both the victim and the perpetrator, or because they are prohibited by law, they are wrong because on a very fundamental level they are anathema to the humanity, dignity and inalienable rights supposedly possessed by all persons everywhere. They are anathema in a way that more ambiguous and abstract topics such as tax policy, mileage standards or commercial zoning laws are not. If the equality of all mankind is an axiomatic truth, and not merely a privilege enjoyed by American citizens, then Guantánamo must be closed and we must permanently end all programs of torture and indefinite detention, regardless of their location, who we imprison there, or whether or not they are “official”.
The right of due process--inspired in part by the Magna Carta--rests upon the universal right to liberty, and it is pure sophistry to argue that this right is contingent upon the citizenship of the individual, the location of their prison, or the circumstances of the moment. If the right is self-evident and inalienable, it exists independent of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or any other law or context. It exists independent even of the Declaration that evoked it--a document that did not establish these rights, but rather recognized their inherent existence and our obligation to protect and preserve them.
Please don’t misunderstand: I'm cognizant of both the scope of the mess left by the Bush Administration's war crimes and the limits of President Obama's powers to close Guantanamo in the face of the shameful opposition from Congress, and even accounting for this failure I still think his election has done more good than harm, especially given the alternatives with which we were presented. I don’t for a moment regret my vote. But while the President’s hands may be tied when it comes to closing Gitmo and bringing existing prisoners stateside to face trial in a civilian court, it is entirely within his power to say: no more--we are where we are, but we go no further.
Guantánamo must close, but even that will amount to a symbolic gesture if we continue the program of indefinite detention, granting undeserved legitimacy to the Bush Administration's crimes by continuing its dark legacy.
We have always been an imperfect union seeking perfection, but indefinite detention without due process in the name of national security--or for any other reason--makes a mockery of even aspiring to that end. All men and women are created equal.
So say we all.
Guest post by Amezuki, not by Gary Farber