Friday, June 13, 2008

A few brief words on habeas corpus

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. - Magna Carta, Article 39, as granted by King John in 1215


I am deeply distressed by the thought (comments supra) that habeas corpus is some weak-wristed liberal idea designed to protect, benefit, and otherwise coddle terrorists and other murderous fiends. This is ahistorical and backwards.

Habeas corpus dates to the Magna Carta at least. The Magna Carta was granted in 1215, and the men who put it together were not, I assure you, a bunch of crazy-commie-liberals. What habeas corpus means is that individuals cannot be imprisoned at the whim of the king or for the sake of his own convenience, ie, no one goes to jail without a good reason. The king can't say per speciale Mandatum Domini Regis and throw away the key. He has to demonstrate cause and explain to the court why he thinks you should be imprisoned. If he can't, you are set free.

What should be obvious to anyone with even a child's grasp of logic is that habeas corpus does nothing to help criminals. What it does is protect innocent men (men who might have been arrested by mistake, something that, presumably, could happen to any one of us) while also reassuring us all that the government is behaving credibly.

Absent habeas corpus we don't know that all of the men in Gitmo are terrorists. Absent habeas corpus, its possible that some of them have been imprisoned simply to magnify the glory of the president, to make it seem like his absurdly expensive War on Terror is producing results. It's also possible that honest mistakes were made, that some of the incarcerated men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that bounty-seeking warlords turned them in.

Like you, I desperately wish to believe that all of those men are hardened enemies of America, but without habeas corpus how can we know for sure? How do we know that every last one of those men languishing in prison have been apprehended for good reasons? The answer is we don't and, as the Supreme Court yesterday agreed, basic 800-year old principles of fairness demand that we find out. And the very worst that will happen is that any men collected by mistake, or handed in by bounty-seeking warlords will be set free. This is an outcome no freedom lover should oppose.

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