A Minneapolis Star Tribune
Yasser Esam Hamdi is a special American. So special, in fact, that the U.S. government has kept him locked up in a windowless cell for more than six months -- forbidden contact with anyone but his jailers. His pleas for a lawyer have been denied. Yet Hamdi hasn't been charged with any crime.
How can this be? Ask the White House, which argues that Hamdi is "by no means an everyday American." Born in Baton Rouge but raised largely in Saudi Arabia, the 22-year-old student was part of a Taliban unit captured in Afghanistan last year. The government deems him an "enemy combatant" who can be held incommunicado as long as the conflict -- the ongoing and potentially endless war on terror -- persists.
That this "war" could consume the rest of Hamdi's life ought to matter a little, but what should matter a lot is the government's disregard for constitutional principle. So said the public defender who represents Hamdi but has never been allowed to meet him, to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. If the White House argument prevails, Frank W. Dunham Jr. warned, government would enjoy "vast power to imprison American citizens" without court review.
Hamdi's plight recalls the days of the Japanese internment camps -- the shame of World War II. Back then, having the wrong ethnicity was enough to justify indefinite lockup. These days, it seems, being caught on the wrong battlefield is enough to scotch due process. Once citizen Hamdi was nabbed in Afghanistan, the government says, he lost all rights he once had.
But saying this doesn't make it so. As a throng of civil-liberties groups and law scholars have told the court, the White House can't legitimately bar judicial review of a citizen's rights merely by claiming he's an enemy combatant -- whatever that vague term may mean. If it could, citizens like Hamdi would enjoy even fewer rights than foreigners like Zacarias Moussaoui -- the so-called "20th hijacker" of Sept. 11 -- and others facing terrorism charges.
That's senseless, as is this business of fighting for U.S. freedom by squelching it. The Constitution, after all, isn't a sometime thing -- reserved for good Americans who stay home and out of trouble. Its protections were written to apply to the most and least ordinary of Americans -- to the innocent, and to those who may well be guilty.
If the United States has a case to make against citizen Hamdi, let it prosecute him in open court. Give him a chance to consult with a lawyer, confront his accusers and mount a defense. If no accusation can stand against the man, it's inexcusable -- and unconstitutional -- to detain him. Surely the appellate court will say so.
Reprinted from The Minneapolis Star Tribune: