I ended my last column by saying, “If we learned anything from [Osama] bin Laden and his followers it should be that we have enough enemies to worry about without having to be afraid of the enemies trapped in our own mirror.”
One week later, a federal judge in Detroit ruled for a second time that the government had violated the rights of a Lebanese man, arrested after the Sept. 11 attacks, because the man was subjected to secret detention and deportation hearings.
The arrest and unjustifiably long detention of Rabih Haddad is a good illustration of what I meant by “enemies trapped in our own mirror.”
Haddad, an Ann Arbor resident who helped found an Islamic charity, was arrested in December for overstaying his tourist visa. Metro Times and other newspapers and individuals sued to force the government to open Haddad’s hearings. (Metro Times has no opinion on Haddad’s status; we just want the hearings for Haddad — and others like him — open.)
Judge Nancy Edmunds of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled months ago that Haddad’s rights had been violated when the government conducted his deportation hearings in secret.
A federal appeals court in Cincinnati last month upheld Edmunds, agreeing that the Bush administration had violated the Constitution in Haddad’s case. In its unanimous opinion, the appellate panel issued a stinging indictment of the feds’ tactics.
Last week brought more good news for Haddad, when Edmunds ruled that Haddad should be freed within 10 days or granted new hearings that are open to public scrutiny.
Since the Haddad case seems likely to wend its way up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, some legal experts are saying that the matter could set a precedent for the hundreds of Arab men who were so quickly rounded up after the attacks. That’s not much of a surprise.
What remains to be seen — and hoped for — is whether the correct precedent will be set.
If it is ultimately decided that the Bush administration did the right thing when it acted to close detention hearings like Haddad’s, then our government is transforming the America we thought we knew into the type of society we thought we were protecting ourselves against. We can’t live free, promote freedom around the world and then stand quietly by as our government holds secret hearings in a system created for those “special” folks for whom our leaders lack enough dirt to send up the river legally.
If, however, Judge Edmunds’ view prevails, then just maybe America really is as resilient and strong as we’d like to think. After all, it takes a lot more strength to admit a mistake and correct it than to persistently and stubbornly continue to compound that mistake until it becomes so warped that it can never truly be set right again.
The Haddad hearings had been ordered closed under a highly questionable, suspiciously convenient policy that was suddenly exposed to the light of day after Sept. 11. This policy, created by Attorney General John Ashcroft, allowed the Immigration and Naturalization Service to declare certain cases “special interest” and to conduct them in secrecy. Ashcroft is trying hard to convince one and all that the security of the nation depends on giving the government carte blanche to clean things up without any pesky interference from us, the taxpaying peasants of the land. His motto ought to be “Just Shut Up, Close Your Eyes and Trust Me.”
Either we’re a free and open society — or we’re not. If we’re going to be a free and open society, then we’ve got to get used to living with the consequences of that decision and learn how to roll with the punches. We can’t change the rules every time a foe lands a blow.
Our government needs to do a better job of thinking about what it is doing when it promotes secrecy and deception in the name of freedom.
I’ll be the first person to admit I didn’t vote for Bush, don’t like Bush, and pray he doesn’t get a second term. Those same negative feelings extend to just about everyone in his administration. Still, I’d like to think that Bush and crew — Ashcroft in particular — are capable of realizing when they’ve made a serious mistake and are willing to readjust their positions to correct that mistake.
Then again, considering the president’s ongoing determination to go to war with Iraq and the hell with what the rest of the world thinks, maybe I’m being overly optimistic.
I hope not. Because the further we venture down this road, the further we venture away from ourselves.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org