Thanks for the American Dream: to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lie shines through.
--William Burroughs, Thanksgiving Prayer
The road to hell is paved with good intentions...
--Just about Everybody's Father, Growing Up
Dear Fellow Mavericks,
In 1967, at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War, the distinguished African writer Wole Soyinka was arrested. The Nigerian Government never officially charged him with any crime, nor did they bring him to trial. Instead, he was held in the notorious Kirikiri Prison for over two years, the majority of that time, in solitary confinement in a 4 x 8 foot cell. During this time, he was frequently interrogated and tortured regarding his "treasonous" and "anti-patriotic" efforts to stop the war. With inside help from sympathetic guards who smuggled him books and writing materials, Soyinka managed to write during that time, and to record his horrific experience in detail. His writings from that time are collected in his book, "The Man Died." Partly for the excellence of this writing, Mr. Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
On 8 May 2002, at the beginning of the US Government "War on Terror," Jose Padilla, a citizen of the United States, was arrested at Chicago O'Hare airport. Padilla was originally held by the Department of Justice as a "material witness" during a grand jury probe into an alleged conspiracy to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on a US city. However, on 9 June 2002, the US government abruptly transferred him to military custody and cut off all contact with his attorney. The transfer to military custody was made on the basis of a one-page order by President Bush designating Padilla to be an "enemy combatant" closely associated with al-Qa'ida, whose detention it said was necessary to prevent him from aiding an attack on the United States. He has been held since that date in solitary confinement on a naval base in Charleston, South Carolina. In December 2002, a US district court upheld the president's authority to detain enemy combatants, even if US citizens, with only limited right of judicial review. However, the court also ruled that Jose Padilla was entitled to consult with, and be visited by, his lawyer, in order to have some opportunity to present facts to rebut the government's evidence. The US government appealed, arguing that granting Padilla access to an attorney would hinder its ongoing interrogation of him. Jose Padilla remains without access to his attorney pending the government's appeal.
Jose Padilla is one of two US citizens currently detained indefinitely as "enemy combatants" in US military custody.
The other is Yaser Esam Hamdi, who was arrested during the US-led war in Afghanistan in late 2001 (reportedly after surrendering to the Northern Alliance) and was originally detained in Guantánamo Bay before being transferred to the USA in April 2002, after the discovery of his US nationality. He too is held incommunicado without access to a lawyer or his family, a situation which has been held to be arbitrary by the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD).
Last December, the UN's WGAD described Padilla's detention as "arbitrary" in violation of articles 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the US is a State Party.
Article 9 of the Covenant affirms the right of everyone to protection from arbitrary detention and specifies that anyone arrested shall be informed promptly of the reasons for arrest and of any charges, and shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court to challenge the lawfulness of the detention.
Article 14 states that all persons are equal before the courts and tribunals and sets out rights for a fair trial. Incommunicado detention generally has been condemned by human rights bodies, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as a human rights violation which can lead to other violations such as torture or ill-treatment or interrogation without due process safeguards.
Access to a lawyer is an important safeguard to ensure that detainees' rights are protected, not only with regard to criminal or other proceedings, but also with regard to conditions of detention and a detainee's physical and mental health. Prolonged incommunicado detention and/or solitary confinement can in itself be a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The cases of Jose Padilla, and Yaser Esam Hamdi are currently under appeal by lawyers for Amnesty International, as are the cases of more than 660 non-US nationals held without charge or trial or access to attorneys in Guantánamo Bay.
So what do the cases of Jose Padilla, Yaser Esam Hamdi, and the 660 foreign nationals held incommunicado at Guantánamo Bay have in common with the case of Wole Soyinka? What does all of this have to do with writing? With poetry?
Fear seems to be the watchword these days.
When, in any country, fear grips the people in control of the government and the military, and those people, always in the name of patriotic duty and usually in the face of some threat to their security, whether real or perceived, adopt and practice policies that permit the extra judicial arrest, detention, and imprisonment of their own citizens, then human rights abuses like torture, disappearance, and killing become possible and even likely.
In in the reactionary storms that gather in such climates of political fear, whether justified or imagined fear, it is writers, those endless questioners of the status quo, those endless searchers for the truth, who are among the first to suffer censorship, harassment, detention, disappearance, torture and murder at the hands of well intended "patriots."
Fear seems to be the watchword, and plenty of people are stepping up to play patriot.
Most Americans, even leftists, are patriotic at heart. If asked, most Americans would agree that defense against terrorism is a serious national priority. Most would agree that it is right for America to take drastic measures to preserve and defend the "American way of life" and American values against terrorism. To protect America from those who would destroy her. Most would also agree, though, that among the central American values worth defending are the US Constitution and the Rule of Law; those inalienable rights that work far better than the good graces of politicians to keep us from the jack-boot of tyranny.
Most Americans would probably also admit to being afraid. Afraid for the country, if not themselves.
To offset this fear, our government should be waging a war to uphold and maintain the Constitution of the United States and guarantee the liberties of all Americans as the most visible symbol of our defiance of terrorist aims.
No despot ever started out as anything but a patriot. Most crimes that are committed against civilian populations are committed out of a fear of what will happen if they are not committed. They are crimes of good intention, seen by their perpetrators not as crimes, but as necessary short cuts that will get them to the desired goal: stability, order, and security.
The road to hell is paved with those intentions. The disappearances of thousands of innocent people in Chile, in Argentina, and of millions in Germany, came about at the hands of elected governments who subverted and perverted and evaded law with those same intentions. They destroy a nations credibility and morale, both from within and from without.
When, in the name of waging a war against 'terror,' a government begins to disregard the law, and to sanction and commit what can only be properly termed as 'crimes against humanity,' that government relinquishes all claims to legitimacy for its own justice system.
Americans are not actually made safer by imprisoning our own citizens, or the citizens of any nation for years on end, denying them access to lawyers, denying them Judicial Review, denying them the right to have charges brought against them publicly, and the right to defend themselves against those charges in courts of law.
We are made safer when we do the exact opposite and uphold the rights of American citizens as sacred at all costs. Let us do right by ourselves and the world and leave an upstanding example for the world to follow.
There's that horrible, darkly cynical refrain from the American War in Vietnam about the destruction of a friendly village by US soldiers, who, when asked about the incident, reported: We had to destroy the place in order to save it.
Let's not allow the refrain we sing to our children be: We had to destroy America in order to save it.
Please take an active role in advocating civil liberties and human rights for all Americans.
Jefferson Adams, Editor in Chief
San Francisco, 01 October 2003