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A Very Good Question That Deserves an Answer

King John of England signing Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede

Religiously speaking, the answers given at the VP debate by Paul Ryan and Joe Biden to the question of how their personal faith relates to their work as politicians were striking. The difference between the two candidates — and the parties and platforms they stand for — could not have been starker. Ryan spoke with absolute certainty that he/his party/his church are absolutely correct when it comes to banning abortion, while Biden expressed both his own personal beliefs alongside respect for those who hold other views and the concomitant right to act on their religious views.

But while abortion was the specific example Martha Raddatz used to frame her question, it points to similar questions on other issues. The editors of the Jesuit magazine America pose a very good question themselves (emphasis added):

Is it ever morally acceptable to detain a person, citizen or not, possibly for the rest of his life, without charges or a trial? Consider the Golden Rule. If a foreign government detained you, or a loved one, what would you expect as due process? Detailed charges? A presumption of innocence? Humane interrogation, skilled legal representation, access to evidence, ability to call witnesses, fair courtroom procedures, an independent judicial authority, a public trial within a reasonable amount of time and, if you are not charged or convicted, the freedom to return home to family? Some might argue that “terrorists” forfeit these rights. But this presumes guilt. No detaining authority, whether foreign or American, should have unchecked power over a person’s liberty.

The United States failed to treat Adnan Latif in accord with the Golden Rule. His only relief from Guantánamo was death itself. The Obama administration has no plan to prosecute or release 48 detainees in Guantánamo and hundreds more in Afghanistan. These men face the prospect that they will be “released” in the same tragic manner as Mr. Latif. In Guantánamo, 85 other detainees, already approved for release or transfer, remain in custody.

What has sustained this perversion of justice? 

Actually, that’s two very good questions. The key to the latter is implied in that middle statement I bolded, especially the verb. Whether speaking about abortion, taxes, torture, indefinite unaccountable detention, or a host of other issues, it all boils down to one thing. Romney, Ryan, and the Republicans are presumptuous in their infallibility. We know what’s best. We know what’s in the heart of this person in detention, this woman considering abortion, and the 47% of Americans who receive some kind of check from the government. Don’t worry you’re little heads about any of this, because we have it all under control.

Note, please, the shift. Instead of talking about justice, the GOP talks about control. Sad to say, the Obama administration and the Obama/Biden campaign generally concedes the shift.

That’s what sustains the perversion.

While Biden made a strong defense of a woman’s personal autonomy at the VP debate, no such claims can be made by Team Obama with regard to indefinite detention. (See here for a stunning account by Carol Rosenberg (circa 2010) of how the “administration of justice” at Gitmo has operated. Or, you know, not.) Whether they share the GOP’s presumption about infallibility, or are too frightened to stand up to the GOP, the result is the same — sustaining the perversion of justice. In Latif’s case, it was perverse indeed (again with emphasis added):

What did they think would happen to this man, against whom there was just one scrap of evidence, an intelligence report, with several acknowledged errors, from an interrogation taken in Pakistani custody at a time when Pakistanis were inventing stories about Arab men for bounties. DOD even had exonerating information about Latif–evidence from their own intake form that he had the medical records showing a head injury he claimed he had  traveled to Pakistan to treat. And DOD had cleared Latif for release over and over and over.

In spite of that, both the Obama Administration and Circuit Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown proceeded on the assumption that inculpatory government records were entitled to a presumption of regularity, but exculpatory ones weren’t.

It was as if it was just a joke, some rigged game to help the Obama Administration shut away Gitmo, back to what it had been before Boumediene.

I’m sure they’ll release a report that Latif finally found a way to bypass all the efforts the government had made to force him to live out this limbo, a probably innocent man rounded up in the confusion after 9/11. I’m sure they’ll say Latif killed himself.

But Latif gave our legal system a good faith effort, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court. And it failed him. It failed to uphold the simple principle that the government’s evidence to hold someone indefinitely should be something more than a single problematic interrogation report refuted by 10 years of interrogations.

Latif may be dead, but as Marcy notes, the perversion continues. If no one asks Obama and Romney about this in the town hall debate next week, I’d love to see Bob Schieffer ask the question from the editors of America at the foreign policy presidential debate that follows.

It’s a very good question that deserves an answer.


Image h/t to the anonymous 19th century artist who created this colored woodcut of King John answering the question about indefinite detention. For the record, King John’s answer was “never”.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.