In an era when the concept of "rights" has come to mean individual rights only, the idea that collective rights might take precedence over those of an individual can be a difficult notion to grasp. But it's the issue at the heart of any discussion of civil liberties in wartime, and the war on terror is no different. The ultimate civil liberty is the right to life.The conservative Wall Street Journal has just placed the group separate from and above the individual, and it has done so supposedly in the name of the individual’s well-being. Every tyranny of the past one hundred years has relied upon the same moral claim to justify its actions.
Individual rights are the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness; they come from the principle that man has a right to his life and that he requires freedom of thought and action in order to live. Respect for the principle of individual rights protects man from force; it leaves men free and un-coerced except in retaliation against those who would use force first, and it places the right to retaliatory force under the rule of law. All disputes between men are properly judged by the principle of individual rights; there are no other rights amoung men to consider.
Yet those who support the detention of American citizens without a trial turn the principle of individual rights up upon its head. They say, in effect, that national security allows the government to imprison citizens without having to prove its case under the law, and that the mere attempt to question the government on the strength of its evidence in a courtroom is itself is a threat to national security. Such a view is wrong and it is wicked; it represents perhaps the gravest threat to freedom in America today.
The constitution allows for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in times of invasion or rebellion; both are threats to people’s rights that demand immediate action to protect the people’s government. Yet that power is listed in Article One of the constitution; only the Congress has the power to order any suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and it may only do so in cases of invasion or rebellion where “the public safety requires it.” This is a deliberately high threshold to meet and it serves no less a purpose than to protect the people from unchecked and unchallenged government coercion.
In the post-September 11th world, the Bush administration holds that the need to protect its intelligence sources obliges it to detain Americans accused of crimes against the state without trial. Yet Congress has issued no suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, nor is their any threat against the United States that would justify such a suspension. If a foreign threat exists against America, it ought to be dealt with at its source by our military, and not at the price of destroying checks that protect the individual from the abuse of government power.
Jose Padilla is an American citizen arrested on American soil. Every American accused of a crime—even Padilla—is owed his day in court. There is no universe where the value of intelligence supersedes the rights of the accused. The answer to the dilemma of how to fight the war against militant Islam is not the creation of phony group rights to justify the incursions against individual rights here at home—it is the destruction of the terrorists and the states that sponsor them.