By July, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on two separate cases involving U.S. citizens who are being held without charges as enemy combatants. One was born in Baton Rouge, the other was born in Brooklyn and raised in Chicago.
The merits of the individual cases will be decided by the justices who heard arguments offered by the government and the two men's attorneys.
Whatever the court decides in these particular cases the potential for abuse when the government labels individuals as enemy combatants is extremely troubling.
The two men have been held in near isolation and until recently had not seen their attorneys. Yaser Esam Handi, who was born in Louisiana, was captured weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. The government said he was fighting with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Jose Padilla was arrested two years ago on suspicion of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb.
While the state has the right to arrest individuals it considers dangerous, at some point an accused person must have the right to answer his accusers or to offer a defense. The open-ended and nebulous status of our war against terrorism raises the possibility, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated Wednesday, that the current conflict could go on for 25 or 50 years.
In the emotion that immediately followed the 9/11 attacks it's easy to understand how law enforcement might have been tempted to lean hard on suspects and not scrupulously observe their individual rights. Now, however, it's been more than two years and it seems high time for the government to make its case against the two accused men.
At the very least, the government should have to make its case in a closed session before a judge and an attorney representing the accused as to what serious ramifications might occur if the suspect were to be tried in open court.
When loyal Japanese-Americans were held in detention camps during World War II, few Americans challenged the injustice. The U.S. was at war against the Japanese, it was argued and national security was at stake. Sixty years later, their detention is considered by most Americans as one of the more shameful episodes in our history and is widely regretted.
The government should take pains to not repeat that same mistake in its zeal to fight terrorism. If there is a case to be made against these two men it's time for them to be brought to justice.
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