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America's big mistake on indefinite detention of terror suspects

The approval of indefinite detention of terror suspects by Congress and Obama maintains the premise that because of exigent circumstances, civil rights and civil liberties must be curbed. This is much like the argument used for decades from Cairo to Damascus.

By Alia Malek / December 28, 2011

President Barack Obama addresses an audience at the Cairo University in Egypt June 4, 2009. Since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, the president's actions on issues such as indefinite detention of terror suspects do not match his rhetoric.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis/File


From Tunis to Athens to Moscow to Wall Street, 2011 has been about dispatching with old ways and rulers, or at the very least, putting them on notice that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

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Yet as the year hurtles toward its end, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has President Obama and Congress standing in stark contrast to that global momentum by ossifying the mistaken ways of what should be a former era.

The NDAA codifies into law the radical expansion of executive power that has defined US policy since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 – and that has been a hallmark of the so-called War on Terror. Notably, it includes provisions that require the military – not law enforcement – to indefinitely jail accused terrorists. Accused, not convicted. 

Obama did threaten to veto the bill, but not because of any objection to the substance of the law. Actually, the White House balked at congressional attempts to limit such provisions to nonAmericans only.

Indeed, the president, who is a former constitutional law professor, wanted the chief executive to retain the discretion to apply such provisions – that is, indefinite military detention – to American citizens, who otherwise are entitled under the Constitution to a speedy and public trial and several due process protections. Congress capitulated.

And so, unfortunately, the NDAA stays the course of the War on Terror as it relates to restricted civil liberties. It maintains the underlying premise that because of exigent circumstances, the power of the executive must be enlarged and civil rights and civil liberties must be curbed.

These are much like arguments that have been made for decades and continue to be made from Cairo to Damascus to justify emergency laws and military overrides of civilian rule. These weak arguments also continue to be rejected by the citizens of those countries and those who stand in solidarity with them as part of a growing worldwide movement.

Obama and Congress’s approval of the NDAA suggests they are blind to their perpetuation of a paradigm that, in light of the events of 2011, is not only outdated, but stands against where the tide of global history wants to go. And their lecturing of autocrats to get out of the way of that same tide suggests they are also deaf to the irony of their plea.

But why this dissonance?

In the processing of the last 10 years, Americans have failed to reach a complete understanding of what the underside of the War on Terror has meant.

They have barely acknowledged the domestic front of this borderless and increasingly perpetual campaign. While some thought has been give to the victims of US international interventions, little has been spared for the  many individuals and communities, right here within America’s borders, who have borne the brunt of both the Bush and Obama administrations’ disregard of constitutional principles.


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